At the beginning of John 6, we observe one of the two great banquets that bounded the last year of Jesus’ life on earth. One was the feeding of the five thousand on the shores of Galilee, and the other was the Lord’s Supper. At each banquet, Jesus was the host; at each banquet, there was a great disappointment; and at each banquet, Jesus gave one of the greatest of His appeals.
About three and a half miles up around the northwestern boundary of the Sea of Galilee was the village of Bethsaida. Bethsaida, the place where Simon Peter and his brother Andrew were born, literally means “the house of fishing” or “the place of fishing.” It was a fishing village. They had moved, however, to Capernaum and were making it their fishing headquarters at the time of our story.
The disciples had just returned from the first missionary journey that Jesus had sent them on, and they needed some quiet time and unhurried conversation with Him. They had had some wonderful experiences and a few disappointing ones. Some mistakes had been made along the way that Jesus needed to discuss with them. More importantly, on their way back to Capernaum, they had heard about the death of John the Baptist; this was very disconcerting to the twelve apostles and they were having a hard time putting all of it together.
“After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.” John 6:1. Across the sea from Capernaum, on the eastern side, there is a lovely, green slope. It is the Passover season—springtime;—everything is beautiful.
Travelers moving southward toward Jerusalem for the Passover, as well as many of the nearby villagers, had heard the wondrous stories about the miracles of Jesus; and they sought to follow Jesus and His disciples. Some gathered into the boats that could be found and followed them out across the sea, while others, after waiting long enough to make sure where the boat was heading, walking around the shore to meet it.
The day that was intended to be a day of counseling turned out to be a day of ministry, a long, long day of ministry, with the people far from their homes. The problem of good eventually arose, and you remember that beautiful story of the feeding of the 5,000. This event created great excitement. There were more than 5,000 persons gathered, the biggest crowd to follow Jesus that the disciples had every seen; and they were awe-stricken. It seemed to them that the great momentous hour must be moving in on then when Jesus would take the kingdom, assert His power, and declare Himself to be the rightful ruler of Israel. The crowd kept talking about making Him king, and the disciples were doing nothing to discourage them because it was sweet music to their ears.
Jesus knew the damage that would result; so, to the bitter disappointment of the disciples, near the close of the day, He sent them back to Capernaum in the boat, something they certainly did not want to do, while He withdrew to the mountain to escape from the crowd.
The next morning, as Jesus and the disciples were back in Capernaum in the synagogue and Jesus was teaching, there was a most unusual dialogue between Jesus and the people. As we look at this dialogue, we cannot help but wonder what is going on. Jesus does not seem to be in His usual diplomatic, tactful frame of mind. With each exchange of thoughts, we can see the tension building. The dialogue begins innocuously enough with the foolish question, “When did You come here?” as if there could be any doubt.
In response, Jesus looks at them for a long moment and says, “You are looking for bread, aren’t you?” (See John 6:26.)
My, what a beginning! The disciples look on in astonishment. Not knowing exactly what else to say, the people ask, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” John 6:28.
Jesus answers, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him [Me] whom He hath sent.” Blunt, straight, and direct, “This is the work of God, that you believe on Me.” Well, this sort of makes them gasp. Then in verses 30 and 31 they pick up on the idea of bread, thinking that this will give them a way to reason with Him and get His thoughts going in the way that they want them to go.
They said, “Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
They were attributing the gift of the manna to Moses, but Jesus said, “Moses gave you not that bread. My Father gave you that bread, and My Father is giving you this bread. Believe on Me.” (See John 6:31, 32.)
Oh, my, where is all of that tact, all of that diplomacy? But the people continue, “Lord, evermore, give us this bread.” Verse 34. They are still hoping to bend the conversation in the way of their own interest and their own desires.
Jesus answers saying, “I am the bread.” Then in verse 35, He says, “I am the bread of life.” The Jews began to murmur, “Is not He from Nazareth? What is this business about Him coming down?” (See verses 33, 42.)
Then Jesus introduces a new symbolism which is even stronger than the first, “Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, ‘Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him. . . . I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread, which came down from heaven.’” Jesus will not back off the slightest bit. “If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever.” Now He makes it even stronger, “And the bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:43, 44, 48–51.
Then the murmur becomes striving and arguing, and the people begin to get angry. “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat.” Verse 52.
But Jesus still will not back up. He just pushes it even more strongly. “Then Jesus said unto them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”’” I know of no way that you could express it more strongly than that. “For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me. This is that bread which came down from heaven.” Verses 53–58. The record says that at that point, a lot of them, the great majority of that huge crowd, turned their backs and walked away to follow Jesus no more.
Did not Jesus know what would be the result of that uncompromising attitude on His part? Why did He lose that crowd? He had all of these people coming to church. Why did He do what He did? “When Jesus presented the testing truth that caused so many of His disciples to turn back, He knew what would be the result of His words.” The Desire of Ages, 394. He knew what He was doing. He did it deliberately. “But Jesus brought about this crisis while by His personal presence He could still strengthen the faith of His true followers.” Ibid.
Between those two sentences, the messenger of God tells us that Jesus knew that twelve months ahead of Him was the last Passover and He knew exactly what was going to happen at that Passover. Jesus knew that if this great crowd of unconverted and half-converted people was part of the group of His followers all the way until the crucifixion and then they all left, as they would certainly do, they might even drag the disciples with them. He deliberately used this confrontational style to separate the chaff from the wheat at a time when He would still be there to help the disciples to cope with that discouragement.
Jesus was not impressed with crowds, really, as human beings are. It is so easy for us to think that when we get a lot of people coming to church by any means whatsoever, we are doing a great work for God; but that is not necessarily so. If the people are coming for the bread, that is wonderful. If they are coming for spiritual junk food, that is something else; and the two do not merge well together.
The gospel causes institutions to come into being, and there are always those who look at those institutions and see opportunities for material and financial gain. This has always been and will always be a problem in the church, so Jesus had to deal with that. But most of all, as I just said, He had to let His disciples figure it all out while He was still alive to help them. He had to confront the unconverted as if He was drawing a line and saying, “All right, now is the time for you to decide. Do you really want the gospel of the kingdom or do you want the gospel of this world? You have to decide now.” Given that choice, most of them said, “We will take the world.”
As the disciples, in anguish of heart, watched that great crowd turn their backs on Jesus, that crowd whom they thought would surely usher Him into Jerusalem, He was there and was able to take them aside and explain all of these things to them. Whereas, if He had let that crowd stay right up until the very end, the disciples probably would have been carried away by discouragement; and He, being in the grave, in the tomb, would not have been able to help them. Ellen White has an interesting comment on this. She picks up Matthew 3:12 with the words of John the Baptist, “’Whose fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner.’ This was one of the times of purging. By the words of truth, the chaff was being separated from the wheat.” The Desire of Ages. 392.
Chaff . . . wheat . . . fan . . . purging . . . Oh, yes; you remember now, do you not? “But the days of purification of the church are hastening on apace. God will have a people pure and true. In the mighty sifting soon to take place we shall be better able to measure the strength of Israel. The signs reveal that the time is near when the Lord will manifest that His fan is in His hand and He will thoroughly purge His floor. . . . Chaff like a cloud will be borne away on the wind, even from places where we see only floors of rich wheat.” Testimonies, vol. 5, 80, 81.
I was recently in the library in Loma Linda looking through some Ministry magazines for the years 1956 and 1957. I came across an article that caught my attention, “We Are Now One Million Strong.” That was in 1957. Now you could say, “We are five million strong.” What does that mean to our Lord? Not much, unless we are here for the real spiritual bread. Our Lord is not impressed by numbers but is looking at intentions, and that is far different.
The second banquet that brought disappointment and rejection is recorded in John 13. The disciples were disappointed because Jesus would not become king at the first banquet, and they were disappointed that He would not defend Himself at the second. These two banquets were the occasions for the two great appeals; but when you look at them, the language is so similar that you could almost call them one and the same appeal. Jesus was looking at the dangers ahead.
If you take John 6 and read all of the way through and then go on to chapter 7, the very first verse says that the Jews tried to find some way to kill Jesus; and they did not stop. They kept on trying during the following twelve months. Jesus knew that those last twelve months were going to be very, very dangerous.
You remember in John 11 when Lazarus died and Jesus said, “Let us go to Bethany”?
The disciples asked, “Do you not know that the Jews are trying to kill You? Are You going to go back and put Yourself right into their hands, put Yourself right in their power?”
Jesus’ answer was, “Yes.”
Then the disciples said with resignation, “Well, we will go and die with You.”
As Jesus was looking at trouble ahead, please notice His words. He does not say, “There is trouble ahead; therefore, make sure that you have your church history straight,” although church history is very important. He did not even say, “There is trouble ahead; make sure that you have your theology straight,” even though theology is very important. What did He say? He said, “There is trouble ahead. There is danger ahead. Stay close to Me. Stay close.”
Now the language back in John 6 says, “You must eat My flesh and drink My blood.” At the last supper, Jesus breaks the bread, passes it, and says, “This is My body which is given for you. Eat all of it.” He passes out the wine and says, “This is My blood which is shed for you. Drink it.” (See Matthew 26:27.) What was He saying to them? “To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ is to receive Him as a personal Saviour, believing that He forgives our sins and that we are complete in Him. It is by beholding His love, by dwelling upon it, by drinking it in, that we are to become partakers of His nature. What food is to the body, Christ must be to the soul. Food cannot benefit us unless we eat it, unless it becomes a part of our being. So Christ is of no value to us if we do not know Him as a personal Saviour. A theoretical knowledge will do us no good. We must feed upon Him; receive Him into the heart, so that His life becomes our life. His love, His grace, must be assimilated.
“So fully was Jesus surrendered to the will of God that the Father alone appeared in His life. Although tempted in all points like as we are, He stood before the world untainted by the evil that surrounded Him. Thus we also are to overcome as Christ overcame.” The Desire of Ages, 389. This is what it means to eat His flesh and drink His blood. It is an appeal for intimacy, an appeal for intimacy in the strongest language.
Stay close to Jesus in prayer. If you have been praying five minutes a day, how about making it ten? Stay close to Him in feasting upon His Word. In the same chapter, Ellen White writes, “The life of God, that gives life to the world, is in His Word.” Ibid., 320. If you have been reading the Bible ten minutes a day, how about making it twenty minutes? Stay close to His counsels in that precious treasure of the Spirit of Prophecy. Do no try to solve your problem by going off by yourself. We do not deny the problems, but the solution is not to withdraw. Stay close to Him in prayer; stay close to His Word in study; stay close to His counsels, cherishing and studying them; and stay close to His people. Jesus says to us, as He said to His disciples, “There is trouble ahead. There is danger ahead. Stay close to Me. Stay close.