The sole giver of eternal life

Sermon: Sunday, 23rd June, 2024
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: John 6:25-71

We’re in the run-up to a general election and there are lots of polls which gauge the popularity of the various parties and their respective leaders. Will the SNP dominate again, or will some who supported them in the past switch their allegiance? What will the political map of the UK look like after the 4th of July? Will it be red or blue? In John chapter 6, Jesus’ popularity as a spiritual leader in Israel reaches its highest point, its zenith. He would have won the race to become prime minister. We read in John chapter 6: ‘Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.’   (John 6:15)

This had been building for some time.
‘Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.’   (John 2:23)

‘Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptising more disciples than John the Baptist.’   (John 4:1-2) Note: It was not Jesus who baptised but, rather, his disciples.

However, towards the end of John chapter 6, there’s a dramatic shift in Jesus’ popularity. Hundreds of his followers decide it’s no longer worthwhile to follow him. There is a sharp demise in Jesus’ popularity. We don’t know exactly how many followers are left, but if feels like a small number. This prompts Jesus to turn to the 12 disciples and ask: ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’   (John 6:67)

There are reasons why so many people give up on Jesus; they’re not good reasons, but it is important to consider them. And there are also reasons why the 12 continue to follow Jesus, in spite of the cost and the unanswered questions. This is a vital area for us to consider this morning. Why? Because today in 2024, there are many attending churches all over the UK who decide that they’ve had enough with church and Christianity and Jesus, and that life would be better for them if they were to walk away from Jesus. And that’s exactly what they do. We have seen this at a national level, a denomination level and at a personal level, when family members and friends tragically leave the faith. It might be that some in this very room are thinking about giving up on Jesus. Or even if you are not in that place right now, perhaps one day you will be, and so all the more reason why we ought to have a close look at what is going on here.

1. Reasons why people walk away from Jesus

One reason is that they can’t handle his teaching! They find it offensive. It’s helpful to see the connection between verses 65 and 66: He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.’ From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.’ Clearly, some of the people who’d been following Jesus were offended at the teaching that we need a special work of God in order to become Christians. They don’t like being told they are unable to save themselves or to earn their salvation, but rather need God and his power in order to receive new hearts and new desires. Many today are also offended by this teaching. But it remains just as true today. We don’t have the power to change ourselves. We need to rely on God’s power and throw ourselves on his mercy. In the days of Elisha, Naaman was offended at first, because he thought he could be saved his way.

They do not like Jesus’ teaching about his own identity. He claims (verse 38) to have come down from heaven! They respond by saying: Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?   (John 6:42) They are also offended by Jesus’ claim to be greater than Moses, who they revere. What’s more, they misunderstand his teaching about being the bread of life: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’   (John 6:51-52) They do not seem to understand what Jesus means by eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This is not something literal. He is not even referring to the Lord’s Supper. By eating his flesh and drinking his blood, Jesus is telling us that he is the Giver of eternal life, and to receive this life we must be united to him by faith, and pledge our allegiance to him. It is by receiving and appropriating for ourselves his death and resurrection and by receiving him as our King that we have this life. Feeding on Christ involves feeding on the Words of Christ, as we read the Bible.

I also believe that people were offended by how exclusive Jesus’ message is. He claims to be the bread of life, and by implication, there is no one else who is able to give us eternal life – only Jesus.

Although called ‘disciples’ in verse 66, this word is used loosely; these individuals were not spiritually united to Jesus by faith. They were not authentic disciples. Rather, they followed Jesus because he was able to give them bread to eat, in the feeding of the 5000. They are attracted by his ability to meet their physical needs. They follow their stomachs. Others, as we have seen, want a political king who will kick out the Romans from Israel and give their nation independence once again. But when they try and make Jesus their king, and see that he is not interested in this kind of earthly kingdom, their political hopes are dashed and they leave him, full of disappointed hopes.

Picture these vast numbers of Jesus’ followers beginning to grumble and sharing their complaints with one another. Picture them coming to the point of decision – we would be happier without Jesus of Nazareth. They turn their backs on Jesus and walk away. I think some would have agonised before doing so, and would have done so with a heavy heart. It is a tragic scene.

Today, people leave Jesus for the same kind of reasons. There are doctrines which people genuinely struggle with including the sovereignty of God, the problem of evil, the eternal punishment of sin, the sexual ethics in the Bible, and the exclusive nature of the Christian faith, ruling out other religions. Some agonise over aspects of Jesus’ teaching, before deciding enough is enough. They would be happier without God in their lives (so they think).

Some people are let down by the church and wounded by their experiences in certain churches and that prompts them to leave Jesus. Some look over the fence and the grass seems so much greener over there – they think non-Christians have a much less complicated life, and without the pressures of going to church Sunday by Sunday and all this talk of using our spiritual gifts.

In Psalm 73, Asaph says: ‘For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked…’ (verse3) ‘Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence…’ (verse 13) I think that Peter would also have considered the possibility of leaving Jesus and going back to fishing. But he does not. And if we want to make sure that we don’t leave Jesus, then we need to carefully consider the reasons for staying with Jesus.

2. Reasons for staying with Jesus

Note this, Jesus does not change his teaching just because it is unpopular. It is the truth and he will not compromise on truth. He just says: ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve.Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’   (John 6:67-69)

‘Are you ever tempted to leave? I certainly have been, many times, and I don’t know how many times these words of Peter have echoed through my mind. Where can I go? Should I go to Mohammad and join the jihad? I’m not going to find words of eternal life there. I won’t find them with Immanuel Kant or Jean-Paul Satre. I won’t find them in the lyrics of contemporary music. If I want the words of eternal life, there’s only one place I can go to get them – to the One who gave his life that we might live.’ (R C Sproul)

Friends, I find it refreshing how honest RC Sproul is here. Like us, he doesn’t always find the ways of God palatable or easy to understand. He too has questions which remain unanswered. But, like Peter, at the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves, has anyone else died for our sins and risen again from the death to give us hope for life beyond the grave? Does anyone else love us with this kind of love? Can anyone else promise us that although there are many things we don’t understand (and the Bible is clear that God does not tell us everything) nonetheless, God is working all things together for good? Can anyone else explain the value of human individuals? Can anyone else explain why we are moral creatures, knowing right and wrong? Can atheism or agnosticism? Is there a coherent understanding of the meaning of life outside of Jesus? There is not. There is no one else to follow.

I think many of us have various doubts – some more than others. Many of us will have become disillusioned by the behaviour of a Christian, or by a certain church. We all have questions which there are no answers to. There are aspects of the faith which might seem to be harsh or judgmental. However, is unbelief any better? Does that give you meaning or purpose or answer the unanswerable questions of life? It might seem to offer you a happier life. But perhaps God has a more glorious agenda for you than your own happiness, and that is your holiness. The suffering of this life is often what shapes us into becoming more like Jesus. God openly tells us that the life of discipleship is a battle, and that total happiness will come in eternity, when sin is removed once and for all.

So, why follow Jesus? Because he, and he alone, has the words of eternal life. Jesus himself says this: ‘The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you — they are full of the Spirit and life.’   (John 6:63) It is by trusting in the promises of Jesus that we enter into the certain hope of going to Heaven. Just how important is the Bible? Just how important is it for us to read it regularly and carefully and rub it into our own lives? It is enormously important. It is God’s Word alone which teaches us how to be saved from our sin, and how God wants us to live in this world. It challenges us, and comforts us, and instructs us.

Human beings are like cut flowers. We look good for a time, but we are all withering. All of us must die. I promise you now that no one else can deal with your death and offer you eternal life apart from Jesus Christ. He alone has defeated death- no one else. Follow him. Trust in him. He alone has the words of eternal life.

Why follow Jesus? Because of who he is: Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.’   (John 6:68-69) Peter calls Jesus ‘Lord’. The disciples have seen Jesus’ miracles. They have witnessed his incredible compassion for the marginalised. They have heard him teach with unparalleled authority. They have experienced his unmatched love. He is full of wisdom and grace.

In sport, we sometimes speak of the GOAT (greatest of all time). In snooker it might be O’Sullivan and in tennis it might be Novak Djokovic, and in football it might be Pele or Messi. But these things don’t really matter very much. It is just sport – entertainment. When it comes to surrendering our lives to someone and pledging our allegiance to someone, it makes sense to give that commitment to Jesus. He is the Son of God. He is the greatest of all time in every respect that matters. He lived a perfect life for us and he died for us. All his words come true. He will never let us down. He loves us with total commitment. There is no forgiveness and peace with God outside of Christ. May God give us the grace to follow him, and never turn our backs on him.

‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’   (John 6:68)