Commentary on John 6:56-69
Structurally, complaints or quarrels supply a punctuation mark between subsections of this text (for example, verses 42 and 52), which then signal the beginning of Jesus’ discourse. Using the complaint of verse 60 as a pivot, we get two subsections of Jesus’ discourse to the disciples:
- Part I: Jesus responds to complaints about “this teaching” by pointing to the whole story from cross to resurrection and ascension. Many of the disciples turn back and leave-off following Jesus (verses 60-66);
- Part II: Jesus asks whether The Twelve “wish” to remain with him; Peter shows that The Twelve have been reacting in receptive ways to Jesus’ teaching (remaining, hearing, knowing, and believing) and Jesus answers that confession with a reminder that though he called The Twelve, one among them would deny him (verses 67-71).
Between these two reactions, one type being receptive and the other not, John invites his readers to continue a journey that is far from complete.
Before, Jesus answered criticism from the religious leaders. Now, in verse 60, the complaining comes from those who have been following him. Those who decide to leave attribute their decision to “this teaching” (verse 60b). Jesus’ “feed on me” of verse 57 is, in fact, at the heart of the offense.
Because Jesus knows the secret thoughts of those around him, he is aware that his disciples are complaining about him. “Does this offend you?” (verse 61b), he asks. The question implies that, yes, this Jesus offends. However, the next question seems more open-ended: “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” What jumps out about this question is how it reverses language by now familiar to those of us living in this chapter: “comes/came down” appears in verses 33, 38a, 41, 42, 50, 51, and 58, and “sends/sent” appears in verses 29, 38, 39, 44, and 57. In an abrupt about-turn, Jesus speaks of himself “going up” and not being sent out but returning “to where he was before” (verse 62b).
What happened? Gail R. O’Day recalls John 1:50 as an analog: “‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under a fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of Man’” (verse 51).1 In other words, the decision to leave (or stay) is arguably premature without the full sweep of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the gift of the Advocate.
While Jesus might be trying to sort through the nature of the difficulty mentioned in the complaint of verse 60, his explanation seems puzzling: “It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (verse 63). Why is that puzzling? How does the reader reconcile “the flesh is useless” with the previous saying: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (verse 54)? Aren’t the two sayings mutually exclusive?
Raymond E. Brown believes he may have found a clue in the story of Nicodemus: “The contrast between Spirit and flesh in [verse] 63 is the same contrast we found in [John] 3:6. Jesus is not speaking of eucharistic flesh but of flesh as he spoke of it in chapter three, namely, the natural principle in [human beings] which cannot give eternal life.”2 He goes on to contrast the bread from heaven as “real” or “true” (verses 32 and 55) with the manna which “your ancestors ate, and they died” (verse 58). The words Jesus speaks are in unity with the life-giving spirit of the real or true bread from heaven (verse 63). Human beings are born anew not by the will of the flesh or of the will of human beings, but by the will of God (John 1:13 and 3:8).
Maybe, by all this, John means election; even so, there is a decision and “many” of Jesus’ followers “turned back and no longer went about with him” (verse 66).
Jesus’ question to The Twelve: “Do you also wish to go away?” reminds the readers that the Book of Signs is presenting would-be followers of Jesus with a choice. According to Brown, the verb to want or wish may refer to a realized (see John 1:43; 5:35) or unrealized wish (see John 7:44; 16:19).3 Jesus gives the people the loaves and the fishes, as much as they wanted (verse 11). The disciples want to take Jesus into their boat, though it is not clear that this is realized or not realized (verse 21). Now, the question is do they, The Twelve, also wish to leave Jesus (verse 67)?
It strikes the reader as an ironic question, maybe anti-climactic. Why? The irony lies in that while Jesus elected them, evidently an act of divine providence (verse 70), The Twelve remain because they have made an informed (and human) decision (verse 69). Which wins? Divine election or human decision? It feels peculiar alongside the Synoptic tradition, in which Jesus welcomes Peter’s confession with a proclamation: “Upon this confession, I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Instead, Jesus speaks of future betrayal. O’Day tells us that the message here is to stay humble: “Election is no substitute for the decision of faith.”4 One might say the same thing about human decisions: they’re no substitute for election. The drama of belief and unbelief continues to be acted out in the world of the living.
Maybe when we read this text, we want to say that we would be with Peter and with The Twelve, and we would continue with Jesus. Rock-solid with Jesus. When the roll is called up yonder, we will be counted among the saints. Or perhaps when we read this text, we want to say that it’s okay to doubt, that it’s honest to doubt. After all, Peter who spoke so movingly a moment ago will a few chapters hence speak in a very different way.
Or maybe the belief or unbelief that we claim isn’t the point. Authenticity in the fellowship of believers seems to be important to John’s Jesus. “What,” he asks his first two disciples, “are you looking for?” (John 1:38). He asks another, who has been sick for 38 years, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)? And at his betrayal, twice he asks, “Whom are you looking for?” (John 18:4, 7).
Who do you desire?
Do you love me, Peter?
“I am thirsty,” Jesus said. For wine?
- Gail R. O’Day, “John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke and John, volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 518.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: Introduction, Translation, and Notes in The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1966), 300.
- Brown, Gospel According to John, 252.
- O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 521.