Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 6.56-69
Proper 16 - Year B

Other texts: 


We finally come to the end of our excursion in John. Back to Mark next week.

A brief outline:

THE REACTION OF THE DISCIPLES

Earlier those listening to Jesus were "the crowd" then "the Jews". Now it is "many of his disciples."

There is quite a range of responses to Jesus among his disciples in this text: "grumbling" (v. 61); "not believing" (v. 64); "betrayal" (vv. 64, 71); "turning back" (v. 66); and a confession of faith with "believing" and "knowing" (v. 68-69).

The "disciples" have been with Jesus since the beginning of this chapter (6:3). They were first-hand witnesses of the feeding miracle (6:8, 12). They were first-hand witnesses of Jesus walking on the water (6:16, 22) and they are a distinct group from "the crowd" (6:24).

Now "the disciples" (perhaps like "the Jews"?) are divided by their ability/inability to continue following Jesus (6:60, 61, 66).

8:31 also makes a distinction between Jews who "believe in Jesus" and those who are "truly his disciples" -- those who "continue in [Jesusí] word."

A discussion could proceed from these verses about the meanings of "believing" and "being a disciple." There is the confession in our text (which is often part of our Gospel Acclamation): "You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have known that you are the holy one of God." This could lead to a discussion about the relationship between believing and knowing, the relationship between "words" and "believing."

Francis J. Moloney (The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina) says of Peter's confession: "For the first time in the narrative a character has expressed faith in Jesus for the right reasons: his origins" [emphasis in original, p. 229]. For John, proper belief in Jesus includes confessing that he has come from God. He is not just from Nazareth or from Joseph and Mary. This was a theme we discussed some last week.

THE "HARD WORD"

Verse 60 has the disciples saying: "This is a hard (skleros) word (logos), who is able to hear (akouo) it (or him)." [autou could be neuter = "it" or masculine = "him".] Notes below will both consider Jesus himself as the one who is hard to hear, as well as the difficulty in hearing what he says -- the (hard) word.

Two questions: What is meant by skleros logos? and What is the "this" that is the skleros logos?

logos is a word with many meanings. On a literal level it refers to what has been said -- ("teaching" in NRSV & NIV). On a deeper level, it can be the reasons or logic behind the words. Going deeper still: Jesus is the Logos.

skleros originally referred to dry, and thus, hard ground. When applied to other things or people, it took on meanings of "hard," "austere," "harsh," "stern," "stubborn." Concerning the NRSV's translation of "difficult," Moloney writes: "The Greek adjective skeros does not mean 'difficult' in an intellectual sense. The expressions 'unacceptable, hard, offensive' best capture its meaning (cf. Barrett, Gospel 302)" [p. 230].

The definitions given for this word by Lowe and Nida [the numbers at the end are the references in their lexicon] with translation suggests are:

What was "hard" or "demanding" or "harsh" about the word or Word (singular in Greek)?

Earlier in this discourse we have "heard" comments by Jesus' hearers that indicate their difficulties with Jesus' words -- actually they were difficulties with Jesus himself.

The Jews complain because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven" (v. 41). Their difficulty with Jesus' words is that he claimed to have come down from heaven.

The Jews fight among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Their difficulty with Jesus' words is that he is no longer talking about offering "bread" but his own "flesh" as food.

A "hard word" is what Jesus indicates about himself. He is hard to accept. He says that he has come down from heaven. The crowd thinks that he has come from Joseph and Mary. He offers his "flesh and blood" to be eaten and drunk and the Jews find that impossible to understand and accept.

Charles Amjad-Ali was born in Pakistan. His mother is Hindu. His father is Muslim. Charles grew up Muslim, but is now Christian and teaching at Luther Seminary. Part of what intrigued him about Christianity was its absurdness. It was either the biggest joke or it had to be true. I think that the absurdness of Christianity, (which we life-longers may often take for granted,) is part of what makes the Word hard. Jesus is bread! Jesus is bread that came down from heaven! We are to chew on his flesh to have life!!! Upon hearing such statements for the first time, we might have exclaimed, "Good God, what kind of lunatic is this man!!"

I am inclined to translate and interpret the second part of this verse as: "Who is able to listen to him. In John, we have the "I am" sayings. Proper belief is not just believing what Jesus has said (even if it is a "hard word"), but believing Jesus -- who he is, where he came from. Is he from God or the loony farm?

What I think was "scandalous" about Jesus is he was too common to have come down from heaven. He was too much like any ordinary human being. He was just like the other children of Joseph and Mary. He was just another kid from the olí hometown. He was too much like you and I!

Iíve suggested that the problem with Jesus as the Son of God is that he was the wrong packaging. There is some truth that "packaging is everything." Some may remember when money was spent on pet rocks. Why would someone pay for something that could be picked up in their yard? The packaging. The marketing. Jesus from Nazareth was seen to be the wrong package for one coming down from heaven.

If you were to direct a movie about God, who would you cast in the role of God? How would you let the audience know that it was God? Would you use special effects, such as smoke and back lighting behind the head? Could you pick the orneriest kid in the church and suggest that God could be like that child? You might think of the church member (or attender) whom the others talk about -- the one who talks too much; the one who doesn't dress quite right for church; the one who is a little slow or runs too fast in church; etc. Perhaps the most famous "God" was George Burns in "O God". Much less known and much more controversial is Alanis Morisette in "Dogma". (She doesn't appear until the end and is actually the second actor to play God -- and I'm not necessarily recommending the movie. If you don't want to hear the "f" word often, don't see the movie.)

Closer to home, I think that related to this is the characterization of some clergy as being "down to earth" or "being human." I wonder what alternative are the people expecting. Pastors from another planet? Is being super-human a requirement in order to share Godís word? I hope not.

Godís Word was uniquely "packaged" in the flesh and blood of Jesus. Godís Word is also "packaged" in the flesh and blood (and sinful) human beings like you and I. As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends us.

skleros, as noted above, can also mean "harsh" or "demanding" (see Mt 25:24). Jesus' word could be too demanding on the hearers. If we put this text in the context of John's community where it seems that allegiance to Jesus could bring expulsion from the synagogue for the Jews (see 9:22), and possibly ostracism from one's family and their emotional and financial support, then their inability to respond to Jesus could be from an unwillingness to face the harsh consequences that following Jesus demanded. It could literally mean leaving one's old life behind.

According to 8:31-32, which I mentioned above, "truly being Jesusí disciples" means continuing in Jesusí word which leads to knowing the truth which frees us. Following Jesus, by whatever term is used, is a continuous act. It is not a one time conversion event, but a daily conversion of "turning back" towards (or behind) Jesus.

Not only is it difficult to accept who Jesus is, but what he says can also be difficult to accept.

While there are many proclamations of Jesus that are hard to accept: "Take up your cross and follow; love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you; forgive those who have wronged you, sell your possessions and give to the poor," etc. -- and any of these could be highlighted as Jesusí "hard word ". Or, to use a difficult word from Jesus in John, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35), Although I think it's gotten better since I was a child, I still wonder how many people experience the church as a place where people love one another -- or a place where they judge one another?

In our text the phrases: "It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless" and "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father" indicate the utter helplessness of our human abilities to come to God. This is in conflict with our natural tendency to center on our own abilities. It has been rightly noted that the word "I" is at the center of the word "sin". "I want to do it myself," a child states. Our continual references to the "rising" and "setting" sun, which, scientifically speaking is not true; but it gives the illusion that the earth -- that we -- are the center of the universe. Confessions such as "I have decided to follow Jesus" just donít apply. It's not about "I", but it's about Jesus, It's about the Spirit giving us life. It's about the Father drawing (or dragging) us to Jesus.

OíDay (John, The New Interpreterís Bible) writes: "Verse 65 reiterates the claim of 6:37, 39, 44: Access to Jesus is impossible without God's initiating act" [p. 611].

And later concerning vv. 70-71: "Jesus raises again the question of election and choice. This time it is Jesus' act of election, not God's, on which Jesus focuses (v. 70). The verb 'to elect' refers exclusively to Jesus' selection of his followers in John (6:70; 13:18; 15:15, 19). Even election into the select group of the Twelve is no guarantee of a faith response, because one member of the Twelve is a devil.... Election is no substitute for the decision of faith" [p. 611].

As has been discussed for centuries, there is again the tension between Godís or Jesusí initiating activity and our positive (or negative) response. Looking back to v. 45: Is it possible for us to hear, if there is no speaker? Do we think of listening as "doing" something -- or is it doing nothing? It is only because God speaks -- or sends the Word -- that we can hear.

That great American theologian, Mark Twain, once wrote: "Most people are bothered by those passages in Scriptures which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always notice that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand" (I've not been able to reference this quote.)

I wonder: Do we still proclaim the hard word? Or are we too fearful of driving people away that we proclaim a soft word? What is the difference? Is there a time for a soft word and a time for the hard word? Up until this time "the disciples" were hearing and seeing many wonderful "signs," wine, bread and fish, etc. Is that all we expect from following Jesus?

SCANDALIZED

The Greek word, skandalizo, occurs only twice in John. In our passage, it is Jesusí words which scandalize the disciples (v. 61). In the other instance, (16:1), it is Jesusí words that are to keep the disciples from being scandalized (or stumbling). I think that this paradox is true of Jesus as the Word. The same Word which offers life also can drive one away from the source of life. It is at the same time a very hard word to accept and a very simple word. Eat my flesh. Drink my blood. You have eternal life and will be raised on the last day. That's pretty simple. Yet, in most our congregations 70% of the members fail to eat and drink each week. Perhaps the word is seen to be too simple to be too important -- a little like the opinion of many in the first century about Jesus.

WHAT IF?

Verse 62 is only part of a conditional sentence: "Therefore if you would see the son of man ascending to where he was before...." What would happen if they see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? How would their beliefs be changed? That question is not answered. Maloney suggests the conclusion "would that satisfy your doubts?" [p. 228]

Would seeing the ascension make Jesus (or the hard word) easier to accept? Would he (or it) be less of an "offense" (or "scandal")?

Other interprets suggest that seeing the ascension would only add to the difficulties of understanding Jesus. In this case the conclusion might be something like: "would that increase the offense?"

As far as the fourth gospel is concerned, the believers do not "see" Jesus ascend. We are told -- as the risen Jesus speaks to Mary: "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" (20:17)

There is also the possibility that anabaino ="go up," could refer to "going up" to Jerusalem. It is used that way in 2:13; 5:1; 7:8, 10, 14; 11:55; 12:20. So some have interpreted the "going up" in 6:62 as Jesus returning to Jerusalem for his trial and crucifixion. If the disciples see that "going up," what will their response be? Would it offend or scandalize them even more? Would it remove the offense or scandal of his words?

However, "seeing" (theoreo) is something that is talked about in chapter 6. The crowd sees the signs that Jesus is doing for the sick (v. 2). The disciples see Jesus walking on the water (v. 19). Those who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life and will be raised on the lasts day (v. 40). Also the synonym, orao, occurs in this chapter: There are those who have seen Jesus and yet donít believe (v. 36). Only the one who is from God has seen the Father (v. 46).

These two words are used interchangeably (see 16:16 where both are used). Both words have meanings that extend beyond the physical act of seeing to "understanding as a result of perception" to "experiencing". One can reread the "seeing" verses I mentioned above and substitute "understand" and/or "experience" for "seeing" as another way of reading/translating/"seeing" the verses.

FLESH AND SPIRIT

OíDay (John, The New Interpreterís Bible) writes about v. 63:

The contrast between spirit and flesh in this verse is taken by many scholars as the key to interpreting vv. 60-71 and the relationship of those verses to the rest of the chapter."

The protesting disciples (like the "Jews" of v. 52) do not rightly perceive the flesh of which Jesus speaks. They see only Jesus' flesh; they do not see "the Word become flesh" (1:14). Jesus' words in v. 63 expose this misperception. The flesh as flesh is useless; only the Spirit gives life to the flesh, and the Spirit dwells in the Son of Man (cf. 1:33) and in the words that Jesus speaks. Verse 63 recalls 1:13 and 3:4-8. A new life born of flesh and spirit is possible to those who believe, but if one limits one's understanding of life to one's preconceptions of what is possible in the flesh, one will receive nothing. Spirit and flesh must be held together; this is the heart of the incarnation.

John 6:63 ... counters the notion that the eucharist as a rite in and of itself has almost magical qualities, that the eucharistic elements themselves contain the key to eternal life.... John 6:63 affirms that the flesh has salvific power only because it is inseparably bound to the life-giving, Spirit-filled words of Jesus. Jesus is not asking his disciples to eat flesh and drink blood; he is asking them to eat the Spirit-filled flesh and blood of the Son of Man (cf. 6:27). [p. 610].

The Spirit presented in this verse is related to "the words" (rhema not logos). I often think "rhetoric" when rhema is used. It often refers more to the actual words that are spoken than to the "logic" (logos) that might be behind the words, but the two words can be synonymous. Whatever it means, rhema is also used in v. 68 to indicate that Peter has got it! Peter knows that Jesusí words are spirit and (eternal) life.

The image of "words" also relates to the importance of "hearing." In v. 60 the disciples are unable to "hear" (akouo) Jesusí hard word (logos).

Part of what Jesus says in these verses is that no one is able to come to him unless it has been granted that person by the father (v. 65). Can we hear that hard word? If we do, that means we are completely at the mercy of almighty God for our coming to Jesus -- our faith -- our salvation. Rather than saying, "I will do this or that and trust God" our confession becomes: "I canít do this or that -- I can only trust God." This means that even our good, pious stuff, such as faith, devotions, Lutheran theology and confessions, cannot be the source of our trust, but only God.

It is immediately after these words that John tells us, "Because of this...." Are these the specific words that drove many disciples away from following Jesus.

An approach I have taken is that Jesus wants to get inside of us -- and he does that through our ears, as we hear the word; and through our mouths, as we receive the sacrament. Which, conveniently, are the two basic parts of the traditional liturgical outline.

At a pericope study a few years ago, another member shared her experience of seeing only part of a Coca Cola billboard, but she knew instantly what it was. She mentioned that to a friend in the car with her. The friend was in marketing. She said, "Coke owns a piece of your brain."

This same person talked about driving down a main street and noticing three different McDonalds. All had those golden arches. McDonalds owns a piece of our brain. I asked, "How many churches did you notice?" She couldn't remember if she saw any. We might ask if the cross owns a piece of our brain as well as Nike's swoosh does?

WHAT IF WE HAD BEEN THERE?

I have heard people suggest that it would be so much easier to believe if they had lived back when Jesus walked on earth. I suggest that it would not have been any easier than believing today. It is clear from our text that some of those who experienced Jesusí words and miracles first hand found the demands of following too "hard" -- and they "no longer were walking (imperfect tense) with Jesus" (v. 66). The imperfect would imply that they had been walking with Jesus for a time in the past, but they are no longer doing that in the present.

The phrase "the twelve" only occurs in this passage (vv. 67, 70-71) and in one of the resurrection stories (20:24). Here, I think that it used to present a distinction between "the disciples" and "the Twelve." What are the differences? Some of those differences that I see from our text are:

Besides the contents of the observations listed above, the "present" sense of the verbs indicates the continuing or ongoing importance of walking, willing, believing, and knowing in relationship to Jesus today -- in the present time.

There is a challenge in these verses of the need for some type of continuing human response to Godís initiative.

OíDay makes the point: "'Believe' and 'know' function as synonyms here, as they do in many places in the Fourth Gospel (e.g., 10:38; 14:7; 16:30)" [p. 611].

While I agree that there is a very close connection in John between faith and knowledge, the word, ginosko, needs to be understood as going beyond just head activity to a relational activity. This word often implies personal involvement or experience that leads to learning. In this sense, "knowing" can be related to the experiential sense of the words for "seeing" (theoreo & orao) which I discussed earlier.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com