Where Do We Go From Here?

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

John 6:66-69 | November 6 -

November 6
Where Do We Go From Here? | John 6:66-69
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Heavenly Father, as we come to your word, we ask that you would give us eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to believe, heads to understand, and wills to obey. Give me the grace to speak your word humbly, boldly, clearly, and truthfully. We ask that you would speak, O Lord, for your children are listening. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

We’re taking a one-week hiatus from our series on Exodus and the Ten Commandments to reflect on God’s word from John 6, which I hope will be appropriate for the occasion. I have a lot of pastoral wisdom, so I thought that we could do something besides “do not murder” for the 50th anniversary celebration (though that’s a good word for all of us).

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:60-69

On October 2, 1966, a small group of believers met with Reverend Tom Stark at the Michigan State’s Alumni Chapel (about two miles from here). That was the beginning of University Reformed Church. Today, though we have 700-800 people here, we’ll do the same basic things that that group of believers did over 50 years ago: we’ll sing, pray, read the Bible, hear a sermon, talk to each other, and try to love one another.

I’m 39 years old, so 50 years seems like a long time to me (though it’s getting more and more manageable). In 1966, my parents were still in high school. In fact, they hadn’t even met each other, so I wasn’t even a glimmer of a glimmer of existence. This church grew for a decade before I came around—and I look around here and see many people who are even younger than that.

Once our church’s anniversary came into view, I started to notice 50-year anniversaries all around me. I should have taken notes, but among the ones that I noticed was Reformed Theological Seminary, which just celebrated their 50th anniversary in October. They began in the same year (and almost the same month) that we did.

I just had an eye appointment at Lansing Opthalmology two weeks ago (so I’m still trying to get my pupils un-dilated!), and I saw that they were celebrating their 50th anniversary. Who knew? The game of the century is also having its 50-year anniversary! The famous (or infamous) 10-10 tie between Notre Dame and Michigan State was in 1966. Finally, this is the 50th anniversary of Guyana’s independence. So there are lots of 50 year anniversaries which I’ve come across.

We’re celebrating ours this weekend. It was lovely to be here on Friday night, being led by Pat Quinn and the others in some great music; also last night, hearing all of those reflections at the banquet; and most importantly this morning, as we gather together for worship (and again this evening).

I’ve entitled this message “Where Do We Go From Here?” I got that from Jesus’ question in verse 67, where he asked the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” And Peter said, “…to whom shall we go?” As a church, where do we want to go from here? The short answer, at least, is that we don’t want to go anywhere. In other words, I don’t believe that we need a massive change in direction.

To be sure, we want to be very clear through this whole weekend that we’re not running a victory lap in the Christian race. That’s what you do after the race has been completed: “Yay! It’s over. We got a gold medal. Now we’ll go run around the track one more time with our flag, and everyone will cheer. We’re done!” No, this anniversary is not a victory lap. The race isn’t over. On the other hand, it’s not as if we were running a marathon and took a wrong turn, and now we’re ten miles off course. I think that God has graciously been keeping us, saving us, and preserving us.

In a very simple way, should the Lord tarry and give us the privilege of this church existing and worshiping here for all of fifty more years, we want to continue to pray, preach, love people, reach out to our neighbors, share the gospel on campus, disciple the people in our midst, send people out, and teach people the word. And we want to look at that word this morning.

This passage is a crossroads—not just for this little vignette, but for the whole Gospel of John. The crossroads moment comes at verse 66:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. John 6:66

To understand this, you need to see that there are four different groups at play in John 6. Go back to verse 22:

On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. John 6:22

The crowd, which is searching after Jesus, is one group. These are people who are interested to see what this rabbi says next—what sort of miracles the wonder worker will do. They are following him after they had just experienced the feeding of the 5,000. They want to know what this guy is up to!

In verse 41, we see a category which is probably a subset of the crowd: “So the Jews grumbled about him…” We see it again in verse 52: “The Jews then disputed among themselves…” So there were a number of Jews within this crowd. Actually, it was probably almost entirely Jewish in this part of Capernaum, and around the Sea of Galilee. But some of these Jews, in particular, were grumbling and disputing, and were a part of this group called “the Jews”.

In verse 66, we see the third category: “the disciples”. When we hear “the disciples,” we usually think of the twelve disciples. The Gospels sometimes refer to Peter, James, Andrew, John, and the other eight in that way. But here, they’re a group within the crowd—men and women who follow Jesus wherever he goes. They set up camp. They’re more than just well-wishers who happen to be in the area and want to see the next concert. They are listening to him and trying to follow with him.

But in the next verse, there’s an even smaller group: “the twelve”. These are the hand-picked disciples (or apostles), chosen by Christ himself. Eleven of them will be pillars in the church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

We read in verse 66 that many of the disciples—those who had been following him, encouraging him, supporting him, listening to him, and going where he went—turned back and no longer walked with him. Why did they turn away? Verse 41: “So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” Verse 52: “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” In verse 60, upon hearing this whole bread of life discourse, the disciples themselves say, “This is a hard saying…” Then, in verse 61, Jesus knows that they have taken offense at it.

Some things do not change. Jesus will always have hard sayings. If you’ve never encountered a hard saying from Jesus—something that makes you think, “Are you sure you meant this, Jesus? Is this really what you wanted to say? How am I supposed to take up a cross and die? I’m supposed to hate my mother and father in comparison to how much I love and follow you? This is a hard saying”—then you either haven’t really encountered Jesus, or you need to keep walking with him longer.

What you see in verse 61 is also true. It always has been, and always will be: some took offense to him. We often think of this as a contemporary occurrence, because we live in an age where people are perpetually offended. In fact, if you’re feeling really good this morning—not upset about anything—let me give you some advice: go online. You’ll be offended. Somebody is going to say something you don’t like. If you need a little help, I’d suggest reading something political. You will find offense!

Of course, here they’re offended with Jesus. If we find a way to preach the gospel without offense, we’ve found a way to preach something other than the gospel. We don’t want to use that as an excuse to be clumsy, ignorant, or obnoxious. Christians can sometimes be very proud that everybody hates us—but is it because of how we’re behaving? That’s not our goal. But listen: if we preach this Christ in all of his scandalous glory, people will be offended.

The message of Christ has always been scandalous. That’s the Greek word here: “skandalizo”. They were scandalized! What did they find so offensive? What prompted them, after listening to this rabbi, following him, and going where he went, to suddenly say, “Enough! We’re heading home. We’re turning around and packing up”? What was so offensive that they left him? Let me give you three things: they were offended with who he was, how he spoke, and what he said he would do.

The Offense of Who Christ Was

First, they were offended with who he was—or, at least, who he claimed to be. That’s what Jason preached on at the end of May: Jesus’ statement that “I am the bread of life…” I won’t go through the entire first part of this chapter, but let me just remind you of what we see here. At the beginning of John 6, we see the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Then we come to verse 22. It’s the day after the feeding, and the crowds are eager to find Jesus. They’re zipping all around the Sea of Galilee, looking for him.

When they finally catch up to him (verse 25), they ask: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” That sounds like an innocent question, but Jesus doesn’t always like answering questions—especially since he can supernaturally know what’s behind and inside the questioner as they ask the question. He understands their ulterior motives, and fires back, “Look, you’re not really interested in the signs. You’re hungry for a free meal. That was a really nice trick that I did the other day, with all of this food left over and five thousand men (plus women and children) going away full, all from a few fish burgers!”

To understand what Jesus is saying, we need to understand the importance of the word “sign”. 1 Corinthians 1:22 says that “Jews demand signs”, and they did! We must remember that the Jews were looking for the Messiah, or the Christ (the words mean the same thing)—the Anointed One. They believed that this Messiah would display certain signs, although they didn’t all agree on what they were.

The problem was that they didn’t understand what the signs signified. Jesus performed a number of miraculous signs. John’s Gospel records seven of them, with the resurrection really being the eighth. He began, in John 2:11, with the water turning into wine: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee…” John, very deliberately, lays out what these seven signs are, indicating that he was and is the Messiah.

Jesus saw through their hearts here. They were impressed with the feeding of the five thousand, but instead of wanting more of him, they really just wanted another meal. The Jews didn’t want the giver. They wanted the gift. They wanted a “Give me god”. That’s true for many of us: Jesus is good because he gets us stuff. That’s what many of us really want. Sometimes, we can even fool ourselves. We go to church, get dressed up, and sing songs, but what we want is not a God to love and save us, and whom we serve, but “Give me god” who buys us things, gets us boyfriends or girlfriends, gets us jobs or good grades, and all sorts of things—except for God himself.

Jesus says, “Don’t work for another meal that’s not going to last. Why not work for an eternal meal?” So they say, “Work? Okay, let’s work. What do we need to do?” You can almost hear their confidence. “Jesus, tell us what we need to do! Tell us what steps to take.” As human beings, we always want practical steps. “Can I use a self-help book? Can someone tell me what the next twelve steps are in order to get eternal life? Just tell us!”

This is where Jesus stops them short. He says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Think about it: that’s both the easiest and hardest thing that Jesus could have told them. On the one hand, it’s easy: there are no works to do. You don’t have to prove yourself for six months, six years, or even six lifetimes to get eternal life. You just need to believe! It’s easy, right? But it’s also the hardest thing, because putting your faith in Christ means that you no longer put faith in yourself. That’s very hard.

If we are honest, wouldn’t we rather have a Christianity that says, “There are just three or four things that you have to do. Read a chapter of the Bible every morning. Give ten percent of your gross income to the church. Make sure to take a pilgrimage to Grand Rapids once a year. That’s all you have to do to get eternal life.” And we’d say, “Okay, I can do that. I just have to check this off and get the things down.” But that’s not what he said. He said, “You need to believe in me.” We who’ve been around the church for a while know that this language of believing sounds very familiar. We can sort of roll our eyes and think, “Yeah, yeah, we get it. Believe in Jesus. Yup, yup.” But Jesus was asking them to believe some very specific things about him.

Most likely, John wrote his Gospel to recent Jewish converts, along with Jewish seekers who were interested in Jesus. This is why, at the very end of the book, we read,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.John 20:30-31

John didn’t make up these stories about Jesus, but he organized them to tell the story of Jesus persuasively. Particularly, he wanted Jewish Christians or seekers to put together: “Here are the signs that he did. He truly was the Christ.” He wanted them to believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Christ wasn’t his last name, but his title—his office as the Messiah; the Anointed One; the one whom they had been looking for; the long-awaited promised deliverer.

So when Jesus says (verse 29) that “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent”, he is asking a hard thing. He’s demanding that the crowd put their trust in him and acknowledge that he is the one whom their prophets foretold, whom they had been waiting for for millennia.

Put yourself in that mindset: “Waiting, waiting, waiting. Where is he? False prophets—false Christs—have arisen. It’s not like he’s the first guy to come around and do some cool tricks. He’s not the first person who had people around him who thought he was something special.” It took faith to say, “Indeed, all of our waiting is now at an end.”

This explains why they asked for a sign in verses 30-31. They quote Exodus: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Remember, after the Israelites came out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, they spent time in the desert before they got to Sinai. God provided them with manna in that wilderness. Part of the Messianic expectation was that the Messiah would be a prophet like Moses who would supersede Moses, and that he would somehow again feed the people again with manna.

There is a Jewish text called “Second Baruch” which dates to within a few decades of John’s Gospel, and it says, “And it will happen at that time that the treasury of manna will come down again from on high, and they will eat of it in those years…” So they’re quoting this to Jesus, and looking for it. “Are you the one? Then where’s the white, flaky seed that our ancestors ate from the ground?”

But Jesus knows what they’re expecting, so he sets them straight: “First of all, Moses did not give you bread from heaven. My Father did. Second, the real bread from heaven is not that flaky stuff, but he who comes down from heaven.” It’s as if he’s saying, “You’re right. The Messiah will be a prophet greater than Moses. He will bring down manna from heaven, but not manna that spoils. Don’t think of the bread I gave you to feed the five thousand. No, I have something much greater—something that will last. I am the manna.”

They would have known Deuteronomy 8, the passage which we read last night at the banquet: “…man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” Jesus is saying, “I am that word. Feast on me.” This scandalized so many of them.

They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” John 6:42

We’ve got to get it into our heads that Jesus was one of the more common names back then. People have done archaeological research to show this. The most common names were Simon, Simeon, Mary, Martha, and Jesus. So this is like us saying, “Is this not the son of Fred, whose father and mother we know?” “Mike, the kid who we knew and grew up with? The guy who was banging nails with his dad? That one? We saw him at reunions!” “Mary and Joseph from Nazareth? Does anyone even know where that is? It sounds like Yoopers! I don’t even know who these people are.” “Jesus? He seems so plain and ordinary, yet he’s saying, ‘I’m greater than Moses.’” Yeah, it scandalized them. “There’s something about you, but I’m not sure about all of that.”

The Offense of What Christ Spoke

The end of John 6 has a lot of tie-ins to the Lord’s Supper. It isn’t that Jesus was seeking to directly explain to them the meaning of communion. That would’ve been lost on them, since they didn’t have a category for it yet. But looking back, we can see how Jesus explains to them what we now understand to be represented in the Lord’s Supper by his death. When we come to the table and eat, it’s a picture of our believing union with Christ. This metaphor is at work in verses 35 and 54:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. John 6:35
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. John 6:54

Eating is the same as coming. Drinking is the same as believing. Never going hungry and never thirsting is the same as eternal life. That’s the point of this picture. Jesus is saying, “Eternal, satisfying life, is to eat me up, drink full of me, devour me, and feast on me. The world tells you a lot of ways to be satisfied. Believe me, they do not satisfy.”

Sin makes us stupid. If we could step out of ourselves for a moment and look at people who do really sinful things, we’d say, “Why did you throw away all of that? That’s dumb!” Sin makes all sorts of false promises. But Jesus says, “I’ll give you abundant, full life.” It’s the lie of the snake back in the garden to say, “You can’t trust this God. He doesn’t want what’s good for you. He’s keeping things from you. He wants you to be miserable, not happy. There are all sorts of good things that he doesn’t want you to have.” Jesus says, “You need to believe me. You need to feast on me. I’m the true manna.”

In this chapter, we see the phrase “come down from heaven” ten times. Jesus wants to make it abundantly clear: “I am the one whom you have been waiting for. If you listen to the Father and learn from him, then you will come to me.”

All of this was difficult to hear, even the way that he spoke about flesh, blood, and eating. It sounds very spiritual to those of us who are familiar with the Bible and with church. We’ll have communion next week. We’ll say, “This is my body for you”, and we’ll drink of this cup of the blood. It’s very nice spiritual language, but it was confusing and scandalous to them.

Remember that many of the Romans opposed this Christian sect in the first century because they thought that they were cannibals. They had this strange feast where they claimed to be drinking the blood of their God and eating his body! The Romans also thought that they were incestuous, because they had these agape love feasts, and they called each other “brother” and “sister”. They were very confused.

Here, many of the disciples are scandalized by the language of “flesh” and “blood”. It’s as if some guru today started to get a following. He gets his own PBS special, he’s doing the book circuit, and people are listening to him. Then, suddenly, he says, “If you want to live forever, sink your teeth into my brains. If you take a bite out of my beating heart, you’ll never be hungry again.” Everyone would say, “Okay, that was a little bit too far. That’s not going to help the book sales or the next PBS special. This guy has gotten really weird. We don’t talk like that.” But that’s the sort of language, and how it would have struck them. “You’re going to drink blood and eat flesh?” They were scandalized by how he spoke.

The Offense of Christ’s Claims

Christ has already been talking about blood and flesh, but now he’s talking about death—his death. This was the most scandalous statement of all. It was unthinkable. Dying was not the way of the Messiah!

Imagine if you were really excited about a presidential candidate. You were passing out buttons, making phone calls, and being so excited. He’s the candidate of a lifetime, and you’re really convinced that he’s going to set things straight. Then, on the very eve of the election, the candidate says, “I’ve been working so hard. All of my followers have been giving me money. But I just want to announce to you that I will certainly lose tomorrow. I will lose absolutely and resoundingly. Then, three days later, I’ll win.” You’d say, “Wait a minute! Are we doing a Florida recount or what? We put a lot of hope and stock in you. We sacrificed a lot to follow you, and now you just announced to us, ‘I’ll lose!’?”

Messiahs don’t lose. Messiahs aren’t supposed to die. At least, the Jews didn’t see the passages in Scripture which clearly said that they do. They were thinking, “No, no, no, this is not what we signed up for. Yes, we like the miracles and the teaching, but the Messiah who dies? That’s just clicked for us. You’re not the Messiah, because if there’s one thing we know about Messiahs, it’s that they conquer, reign, and triumph. They don’t die.”

But this one will. He says in verse 62,

Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? John 6:61b-62

He’s thinking both of ascending on the cross, and then afterwards ascending into heaven. It’s a shorthand way of speaking about the whole passion event.

What if I told you that there will be death, but then there will be a resurrection and an ascension into heaven? Would you believe all of that?You’d say, “That’s too much, so verse 60 is not so surprising:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” John 6:60

If there was one thing that Jesus absolutely did not allow for, it was allowing merely curious onlookers to think that they were actually disciples. He was not interested in drawing a crowd or in high approval ratings. He was not interested in people who just thought he was a wonder worker, a good teacher, or a fabulous man. He didn’t want the mildly interested, or even the intrigued. What he insisted upon was worshipers—followers and believers. That’s why so many left him.

If popularity is a measure of success, Jesus has proved to be a resounding failure at this turning point in John’s Gospel. He preaches a sermon, and a whole bunch of people leave the church. After a great high point where he feeds the five thousand—“Oh, this is going gangbusters!”—they leave.

He would not have people think that he was just another rabbi—just the son of Mary and Joseph. It’s as if he wanted to communicate, as clearly as he could, “I’m not interested in half-hearted, unreflecting followers who hang around me because I make an impression on them. I am the bread of life. I want people who feed on me, who will never be hungry and never thirst. Are you ready to taste and see that the Lord is good? If you’re just here to taste the bread, go home. You’ve already eaten, and you don’t need anything more. But if you’re hungry for something else, then stick around.”

The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle that’s recorded in all four gospels—except, of course, for the resurrection. This was something that everyone in the early church seemed to take note of. A great crowd of people went to and fro, running along the beach and hoping for the Messiah to come and lead them in rebellion and victory. In this sermon, Jesus demonstrated that he was not exactly what they were looking for.

If many of us really looked at Jesus, we’d find that he’s not exactly what we were looking for. He is bigger and better. He’s a better king, a better leader, a better provider, and a better miracle a worker. He doesn’t just look like he could be the Messiah. He actually is the Messiah. He doesn’t just have some powers from God, but actually is God. He doesn’t just provide bread, but is bread.

In closing, we have these famous words from Peter. It just fits with Peter’s personality. He could be impetuous, and would get things either so wrong or (sometimes) so right. He answers: “’Lord, to whom shall we go?’ We’re going to stick around.” We know that Judas would betray him. We know that even Simon Peter, after his glorious confession right here, will betray him three times before he’s reinstated. But here, Peter says more than he knows. Why did they stick around? Why did they stay with Jesus when so many others turned away? Because they knew what they knew. Do you see that in verse 69? “We have come to know something!” So much of the Christian life is about not forgetting what you already know. “We’ve come to know this. We’ve been with you, Jesus. We’ve seen you. We know that there is no one who speaks like you. There’s something different about you.”

And not only did they know what they knew, but they knew who he was—at least, they were beginning to see. Peter, speaking perhaps more than he understood, said, “We know ‘that you are the Holy One of God.’”

Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah 41:14
I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Isaiah 43:15

What a confession: to name those sorts of categories—the Holy One of Israel, the King, the Provider—and to assert that this Jesus of podunk Nazareth deserves those titles.

They knew what they knew, they knew who he was, and they knew what he had. It wasn’t always what they wanted. They wanted more bread. They wanted someone to make sure that they didn’t get drowned in a boat. They wanted someone to figure out their problems for them. He wasn’t always who they wanted, but (in this moment) at least, Peter confesses for the twelve (or at least the eleven), “You have the words of eternal life…

People leave the church and the faith for any number of reasons. We don’t discount those. Sometimes there are very deep hurts. Sometimes churches do dumb things. Sometimes people really hurt them and let them down. People can get confused and walk away for a season. There are all sorts of ways to understand it. But, at its very heart, you don’t just leave the church or leave behind religion. You don’t leave behind a bunch of rules, a bunch of people, or a bunch of hypocrites. You leave behind Jesus.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” At this moment, no matter how they wanted to cut it and say, “It’s not you, Jesus. It’s me. Sorry,” he was saying, “No, it’s you. You don’t want to follow me. You can’t just chalk this up to religion or say that you have some hurts. This is about you and me. What do you think of me? Am I who you have said I am? Am I who I have shown myself to be? Am I someone to be trifled with? Am I someone you can trust? Am I someone whom you follow no matter the cost?”

Make no mistake: if you leave, you leave Jesus. This is why verse 63 is so key:

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. John 6:63

“Where are you going to go, Peter? Where will you go, disciples? The flesh isn’t going to help you, give you abundant life, cause you to be born again, or satisfy you. You need the Spirit and you need life; and if you want the Spirit and life, you need me and my words.” This is why it continues to be such a joy and privilege to preach the gospel at this church, serve in this church, be loved by this church, and enjoy fellowship in this church. For fifty years, it has been about Jesus and the words of life.

This is probably an obscure reference to you. There was a cartoon, at the edge of when I was growing up. Dave Hinkley will thank me for this reference. It was called “Pinky and the Brain”. It was about two mice. One (Brain) was very smart, and the other (Pinky) wasn’t. And their usual line was, “Gee, Brain. What are we going to do tonight?” “The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world.” Go google it.

What do we want to do this Sunday? This year? This decade? This generation? The same thing we do every Sunday of every year: lift high the cross of Christ and speak the words of eternal life. Don’t turn your back on Jesus and walk the other way. You have nowhere else to go if you want the Spirit and life.