“This is a Hard Teaching”: Signs, Choice, and the Sufficiency of Christ (John 6)

None of us ever chose for Jesus Christ to come into the world. He lived about two thousand years ago. It happened without us.

And none of us ever chose for Christ to come into our lives, into our awareness, into our sense of self. It happened one day. He changed our hearts suddenly or slowly, leaving us with a new and different awareness that he is Lord and we find life in him.

Responding to these ideas, to the notion that Christ comes and we do not choose, Jesus’ disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

They said this in John 6:60. I have been thinking about John chapter 6, a passage of scripture that puts together the two ideas in the first two paragraphs above. It is a passage particularly blunt in conveying how little autonomy people have when it comes to believing in Christ or receiving the rewards of doing so. In my book about predestination, You Did Not Choose Me, But I Chose You, I could have said much more about John 6. Blogger Grayson Gilbert has written eloquently on how, in John 6, Jesus was rejected for teaching predestination. This post builds on and borrows from ideas in his piece.

Here are some of the hard points out of John chapter 6:

1. Signs will never be sufficient (John 6:30)

The crowd at Capernaum asked Jesus in 6:30, “What sign are you going to do so we may see and believe you?” Yet as John 6:1-25 makes clear, these same people had just seen Jesus miraculously feed five thousand, and these same people also saw enough to at least infer that Jesus had walked on water. Accordingly, Jesus said, “You have seen me and yet you do not believe” (6:37).

It is a false plea that says, “Show me just one more sign” or “I need just a little more evidence to believe.” Another sign will never be sufficient, because this is not where belief comes from. The fact that people remained unpersuaded after seeing Jesus himself perform his own miracles should show us how powerless we are to win converts with our arguments or testimony. Signs, arguments, and testimony are an aid to belief, but belief does not originate with these things.

2. No transaction occurs (John 6:31)

The particular sign the crowd wanted was provision. In John 6:31, they referred to the bread that had poured down out of heaven in the Old Testament. The crowd said to Jesus, essentially, “If we believe, tell us what our reward will be.”

Jesus’ shocking response is still shocking when stated forthrightly today. He responded that there is no promised reward in terms of gifts in this world. Since our human effort is irrelevant to whether we believe—“the flesh doesn’t help at all,” he said (6:63)—getting rewarded for our effort is irrelevant as well. Jesus is the reward both in this world and beyond.

Upon hearing this, the members of the crowd complained (6:41). They wanted to be the judges of whether God had come. They wanted to size up the Messiah by their own desires and choose accordingly. So they went ahead and judged anyway, and they found Jesus lacking (6:42).

3. No one comes unless drawn (John 6:44)

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him,” Jesus said (6:44). This is the verse I do discuss in my book, one of the various direct statements in scripture to the effect that God chooses us before we can choose God. My book describes how this idea, the idea that faith in Christ is predestined, clarifies our role as believers. I hope you’ll consider reading it if this idea intrigues you.

Jesus lays out the matter in even more detail in John 6:38-40: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose none of those he has given me but should raise them up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

4. Jesus gives Jesus and this is sufficient (John 6:51)

Now comes the hardest part of the hard teaching: Jesus Christ is enough. In 6:51, to the crowd that was looking for bread, Jesus offered himself as bread in its place.

Jesus is enough: If we know he is Lord of creation, nothing happening in creation can overcome him or the salvation he gives. If we know he will raise us (6:40), nothing that befalls us is final. In 6:53-58, Jesus gives a disturbing speech about eating his flesh and drinking his blood that sounds a lot like cannibalism, but his point is that no earthly reward, benefit, or provision is needed or even germane. We can live, and live more freely, by more fully taking him in.

5. The hard teaching drives would-be disciples away (John 6:66)

“From that moment [the moment of Jesus teaching all the hard truths above], many of his disciples turned back and no longer accompanied him,” says John 6:66. That verse connects to the post I will share next, about how predestination and the complete sufficiency of Christ still turn many away. By contrast, the ones given belief do not turn away, because the teaching gives life even though it is hard, and because the ones given belief do not really have the option of turning. They have been changed.

“You don’t want to go away, too, do you?” Jesus asked his Twelve.

“Lord, who will we go to?” Peter responded. “You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God!” (6:67-69).