John 6:59-71

Crises of Faith

John 6:59-66     Crises of Faith 1 - Disciples

59 He said all this while he was teaching in synagogue in Capharnaum.

The location of the discourse had not been specifically mentioned until now. The explicit mention of synagogue was a point of reference for the Christian community. Whatever about their nostalgia for earlier peaceful times, their current situation immeasurably surpassed the synagogue experience.

60 Many of those listening from among his disciples were saying,
“This message is hard to take.  Who can listen to it?”

What was hard to accept was not the later eucharistic addition to the discourse, but Jesus’ demand for complete faith and trust in him as the one truly come down from heaven and source of true life for the world.

61 Jesus knew in himself that his disciples were muttering about it.  
He said to them, “Does this give offence to you?
62 How will it be when you see the Son of Man going up
to where he was before? 
63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is no use at all.  
The message I have spoken to you is spirit and it is life. 

Jesus’ claim that he came down from heaven [verse 58] was one source of the disciples’ difficulties with faith. His coming down from heaven provided the context for his question about the effect of their witnessing the Son of Man going up to where he was before. Did Jesus see that eventuality as likely to test their faith even further, or as providing the possibility of their coming to fuller faith after his death and resurrection?

Situated (as in the present edition of the Gospel) after the text reflecting on Eucharist, where Jesus had spoken about his flesh and blood being the source of eternal life and ultimate resurrection [verses 51-58], Jesus’ warning that the flesh is no use seems, at the least, confusing. It is important to remember that the comment was not made in relation to his eucharistic flesh. In this text, Jesus was distinguishing flesh from spirit. He was using flesh to refer to human nature in its unredeemed state, immersed in the cultural pressures of sinful humanity and blinded by the power of sin. Spirit, in the same context, referred to human nature as open to the transcendent and to the things of God. The author wished to assure his community that the message of Jesus would always be incomprehensible to people not searching for the deeper things of God; but for disciples, open to the mystery of God, the words of Jesus would truly nourish their inner spirits and lead them to life.

64 Yet there are some among you who do not trust me.”
For right from the beginning
Jesus knew there were some who would not trust him,
and who would betray him.

Though the disciples had earlier struggled to deepen their faith, this was the first mention that some of them were actually losing what struggling faith they had. It was also the first ominous reference to Jesus’ eventual betrayal. The author’s mention of future betrayal, so close to his reflection on Eucharist, may have served to lead his readers to connect the incident to the Last Supper, when Judas’s betrayal would become definitive [13:30].

The Mystery of Unbelief

65 He said, “That is why I told you
that no one can come to me
unless it has been granted to that one by the Father.

The author had problems reconciling Jesus’ early friendship with Judas, and Judas’s eventual treachery. He was reluctant to give his readers reason to suspect a failure of discernment or judgment on Jesus’ part. His response was twofold. He had already insisted that Jesus knew about his future betrayal from the start. His second observation repeated the point made earlier in the discourse [verse 44]. There the text had stated: No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.

Experience shows that not everyone comes to Jesus. Is the reason because the Father has not drawn them, or not granted them the wherewithal to come to Jesus? In which case, the Father’s drawing and granting would seem to be selective. There is another alternative. Certainly, the Father’s initiative is necessary. However, it is possible for people not to respond, despite the Father’s drawing and granting.

The Father draws and grants the possibility to come to Jesus by creating human hearts in such a way that they hunger and thirst for ultimate goodness and truth, that they hunger and thirst for God, and consequently, also for Jesus who is the Word (or revelation) of God made flesh. That deep hunger and thirst for ultimate value can be overwhelmed or deadened by other factors, with the result that it is never felt, or, once felt, is extinguished. Why did Judas, who initially responded to Jesus, move to betray him? It may well have been that, deep in his heart, he experienced fascination with Jesus at first, but later allowed other factors to extinguish that attraction. Flesh had overridden spirit.

The Disciple’s reflection throws some light on the mystery of belief and unbelief, but it is still far from being complete and convincing. He would continue the reflection in the discourse that immediately follows [Chapters 7-9].

66 After this, many of his disciples turned away
and went around with him no more.

The failure of the author’s contemporaries to respond to Jesus was not a new problem. The observation may have been an attempt to explain actual divisions that had occurred within the author’s original community of believers. The problem did not lie with Jesus, but with people’s lack of openness to the mystery of God revealed in Jesus (whom they approached from the standpoint of their flesh).

John 6:67-71     Crisis of Faith 2 – The Twelve

67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you too wish to go away?”

Simon Peter’s Confession of Faith

68 Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go?  
You have the message of eternal life.
69 We trust you.  
We know that you are the holy one of God.”

There was an obvious sadness behind Jesus’ question. In some ways, it reflected in negative form the similar question posed by Jesus to the disciples in the other Gospels: “Who do you say I am?” Likewise, the response of Peter paralleled, and expanded, his responses recorded in the other Gospels. It was a wonderful response of faith proclaimed by Simon Peter, unconstricted and open-ended. It was a faith that still had to deepen, but, at least, it went beyond confining Jesus within the limited constraints of previous expectations or definitions.

Simon Peter’s comment, Lord, to whom can we go? seemed to express his incapacity to make sense of all that was happening but a readiness, nevertheless, to accept whatever Jesus said, and to trust him. Again Jesus was directly addressed as Lord, a title that more directly applied to the risen Jesus as worshipped in the Christian community.

Judas’s Destiny

70 Jesus said to them in reply, “Did I myself not choose you twelve?
and one of you is a devil.”  
71 He meant Judas son of Simon Iscariot.  
He was the one who would betray him,
one from among the twelve.

As he had done already [in verse 64], the author was eager to mention Jesus’ foreknowledge of what was to happen. It was important to his theological purpose to show Jesus always in control.

Having mentioned already the fact of Jesus’ eventual betrayal [verse 64], for the sake of his readers, the author explicitly identified the betrayer as Judas son of Simon Iscariot, not simply a disciple but one from among the twelve. He called him a devil

The text referred to Judas as one from among the twelve. The term the twelve would figure only once more in the whole narrative. It would recur again in reference to Thomas, when the risen Jesus would appear to him and the other disciples for a second time after the resurrection [20:24].  The text rarely referred to the first disciples of Jesus as a defined group, and spoke of them only as individuals or as ad hoc smaller groupings of them.

Scholars debate whether the two passages that mention the word twelve may both be later additions to the original text, occasioned by subsequent experiences of difficulty, unbelief (or uncertainty) and disagreement. During the time that the Beloved Disciple was alive, issues of authority within the community hardly arose. There was no pressing need to reflect on the exercise of authority or on the nature of the community as religious structure. Such issues arose only after the death of the Disciple. Consequently, the earlier text did not look at the issue of the twelve and their place and role within the broader community.

What did the author intend to convey by calling Judas a devil? He was not expressing his disgust. He was making a crucial theological point. When Judas would eventually leave the company of Jesus and report to the High Priest, the narrative would comment: After he [Judas Iscariot] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him [13:27]. Later in the narrative, Jesus would refer to the devil as the ruler of this world [16:10]. By world, in this case, the author intended the world as humanly organised. Speaking of the devil/Satan, he was referring to the personalised power embedded in cultures and in social and religious systems, to distract and to blind people to genuine goodness and truth – the power of unredeemed self-interest that fuels people’s rivalries, envy and insecurity and leads them even to betrayal and murder.

The Father, indeed, draws people to Jesus and grants them the capacity to recognise and respond to him [6:44, 65]; but that gentle action of God is so often thwarted by the action of the evil one, the ruler of this world and of the cultures and systems in which people, inevitably, are immersed. Judas succumbed to that power.

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