When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:60-69 – NRSV)
This passage at the end of John 6 is the culmination of the lengthy discourse on the New Passover and the Bread of Life. At the heart of it is the core issue of believing. Believing – one of the central themes of John’s entire Gospel, mentioned six times already in this chapter, is mentioned a further three times in this passage. The emphasis is strong: After mentioning that “there are some who do not believe”, Jesus speaks of the extreme opposite of believing – betraying: “the one that would betray him”. Later he is to be more explicit: “‘Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?’ He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he who would betray Him, being one of the twelve” (6:70-71). Then Simon Peter – as in Matthew 16:17 and Luke 9:20 – speaks for the disciples who were to remain with Jesus: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”. Raymond Brown notes of this last statement: “This is a Johannine combination found in inverse order in 17:8 and 1 John 4:16. The two verbs (knowing and believing) are virtually synonymous; however, it is worth noting that, while Jesus himself is said to know God, he is never said to believe in Him” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 298).
Chapter 6 is clearly a watershed moment in the ministry of Jesus. John remembers it as a watershed moment for the disciples too.
heard it …. accept it: The same verb – akouein – which literally means “hear” or “listen to”, is used on both occasions in this sentence. In the first instance – where it is translated by the English word “heard” – it refers to the physical act of hearing. In the second instance – where it is translated by the English word “accept” – it refers to the act of obeying.
Commentators tell us the Hebrew verb shema is similar – it can mean “hear” or “obey”. The Jewish prayer known by that name means both at the same time: “Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad”. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The first part of the Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, the second part in Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and the third part in Numbers 15:37-41. Our English word, obey, is rooted in the Latin word audire, meaning hear or listen. One commentator writes:
“The Greek verb akouō and the noun akoē, as used in the NT have both meanings (ie physical hearing and the apprehension of something with the mind) though originally these words denoted only the former. Various compounds are used to denote apprehension with the mind. Eisakouō and epakouō stress attentive listening, while the emphatic forms hypakouō and hypakoē (literally hear beneath) mean to obey and obedience. The linguistic and conceptual relationship between akouō and hypakouō recurs in Old and Middle English in the use of the same word for both hear and obey. It can still be traced in some modern languages, eg German hören and gehorchen. The former includes the latter, and in some contexts can be substituted for it. Conversely, parakouō and parakoē (literally hear beside) denote inattentive hearing, missing, not hearing, and thus disobedience.” (Colin Brown, The International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 2, The Paternoster Press, 1976, 172.)
We are reminded of Matthew 13:14 and his reference to Isaiah 6:9-10 when the disciples ask Jesus why he talks to the people in parables. See also Matthew 21:28-32 – the parable of the two sons asked to work in the vineyard.
This suggests the biblical understanding of obedience is much more subtle and rich than mere conformity or simply doing as one is told.
believe: The “hearing” and “accepting” are central to “believing” and believing is central to the Gospel of John. The Greek verb pisteuō is used more than ninety times in John’s Gospel. It is first used in the Prologue – see 1:7. Throughout the Gospel, John always uses the verb, “believe”, never the noun, “belief”. There is an active and affirmative engagement with Jesus implied in believing. Whereas the noun “belief” might suggest merely acceptance of certain propositions, the verb “believe” implies and demands much more. It suggests involvement in and commitment to a developing relationship with Jesus – believing and discipleship are of a piece.
This teaching is difficult: The Greek word is sklēros. The ESV and NKJV translate: “this is a hard saying”. Raymond E Brown writes: “Literally ‘hard, harsh’; there is a twofold connotation of being fantastic and offensive.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 296). Francis Moloney reiterates: “The Greek adjective sklēros does not mean ‘difficult’ in an intellectual sense. The expressions ‘unacceptable, hard, offensive’ best capture its meaning.” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 230).
But Jesus, being aware: The Greek verb is eidōs. The ESV translates “but Jesus, knowing in himself” and the NKJV translates “when Jesus knew in himself”. Raymond E Brown writes: “This is not elegant Greek but reflects Semitic usage. Supernatural knowledge is implied (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 296). See also John 6:64 – “For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him”; and John 2:25 – “he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone”.
It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless: We are reminded of Isaiah: “The voice said, ‘Cry out!’ And he said, ‘What shall I cry?’ ‘All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, because the breath (ruah) of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6–8). The Hebrew, ruah, is normally translated in the Septuagint by pneuma, which is normally translated in Latin by Spiritus (with the capital “S”) which in turn is rendered in the English as Spirit (again with the capital “S”). The implication of Isaiah’s prophecy is that all life comes from God and humanity “withers” when it becomes merely self-referential, standing over against God. This passage from Isaiah was certainly familiar to the early Christians as is evident in 1 Peter 2:24-25. Perhaps Jesus’ words carry this same prophetic meaning.
Francis Moloney notes: “In the Fourth Gospel one must distinguish between the sarx of Jesus and the sarx of human beings. Sarx is used thirteen times in the Fourth Gospel, and its use is consistent. The sarx of Jesus tells the story of God (1:14, 18), and is essential for life (cf. 6:51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56). But the sarx of human beings is confined to the human sphere, that which is ‘below’ (1:13; 3:6; cf. 8:23), and is the source of judgment limited by the superficial criteria provided by the physically observable (8:15; cf. 7:24). In 17:2 ‘all flesh’ (pasēs sarkos) is used to render a Hebraism that means ‘every created thing’. There is no contradiction between the use of sarx in vv. 51–58, where Jesus speaks of his own flesh, and v. 63 where he speaks of the superficiality of the limited human expectations the disciples have of Jesus (v. 62): ‘the flesh is of no avail’” (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 231).
the twelve: There are only two places in John’s Gospel where “the twelve” are mentioned, here and in the description of Thomas as “one of the Twelve” (John 20:24). The reference is probably used in both instances simply to designate a smaller, intimate group of disciples as distinct from the larger group – as in John 6:66. Francis Moloney writes: “The group (ie “the twelve”) plays no significant role in the Gospel’s theology of discipleship, but the grouping of “twelve” within the larger following of Jesus is by now traditional” (Ibid).
In today’s Gospel – John 6:60-69 – there are three references to believing. This is one of John’s favourite themes. He always uses the verb. Never the noun. For John, believing is always a committed, engaged, active relating with Jesus – the one “on whom the Father set his seal” (John 6:27). The disciple is the believing one who is constantly searching, seeking to understand and grow in that relationship. Not all are willing to embark on this journey: “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). When Jesus asks “the twelve” if they believe, Peter responds on their behalf: “We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). We find a similar declaration from Peter in Matthew 16:17 and Luke 9:20.
The noun, “belief”, is very open to the notion that believing is primarily about propositions. “I believe in one God etc.” The propositions are nothing if there is no committed, engaged, active relating with Jesus in one’s daily life. When we profess our faith by reciting together the Creed, the intention is to give words to that which is ultimately beyond words, to join together in a communal act that reminds us of who and what we are and why we are here in this place. Like people who love each other deeply, we do our human best to express that relationship, knowing that there is much more to the relationship than any words can express. Believing is always unfinished business. Believing will never be static, it will always be growing or shrinking. Like any relationship.
Believing is both privilege and challenge, gift and task. Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to a friend who was expressing her struggle with the challenge and task of believing, writes:
“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. …. Whatever you do anyway, remember that these things are mysteries and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A God you understood would be less than yourself. …. When we get our spiritual house in order, we’ll be dead. This goes on. You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty . . .” (A letter to Louise Abbott,1959, reproduced in Sally Fitzgerald, editor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, 353-354.)
Take a moment to place yourself in the position of “the twelve”. Hear Jesus’ question: “Do you also wish to go away?”