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The Life of Jesus - Series 6: Episode 8

Jesus divides opinion

| Martin Charlesworth
John 6:60-71

The discussion following the feeding of the 5000 continues in Capernaum. Jesus continues to use metaphorical imagery. The crowd is divided in its response to his teaching about his suffering and then ascension.

The discussion following the feeding of the 5000 continues in Capernaum. Jesus continues to use metaphorical imagery. The crowd is divided in its response to his teaching about his suffering and then ascension.


Hello. Welcome to Series 6 and Episode 8, and we've entitled it ‘Jesus Divides Opinion.’ We're in John 6 and we're going to be studying verses 60 to 71 - which is the conclusion of a long discussion Jesus has with a big crowd crammed into the synagogue in his home-base town, Capernaum, after the Feeding of the Five Thousand. He returned to Capernaum from the area of Bethsaida, where that great miracle took place.

Introduction and Recap

To give some context here for those who may not have been following the episodes that immediately come before this one, the big story here in Series 6, is that Jesus is travelling around Galilee with his Apostles. He sent them out in pairs to places that he can't get to, to extend his ministry and there has just been a very remarkable miracle - the Feeding of the Five Thousand. We looked at the actual miracle in one of our episodes and, in the last episode, we looked at the fact that that particular miracle provoked a very significant discussion. Let me remind you a little of that story, which provides the background and the explanation of the discussion. Some of the crowd on the mountainside near Bethsaida, in the north-east of the Sea of Galilee, noticed Jesus had come back by boat - they didn't see exactly how it happened because it happened in the night - and they came back to Capernaum to look for him. We have to bear in mind that large crowds were travelling with Jesus most of the time and this particular miracle had had an enormous impact on people. Never before had such a large crowd been recorded as being with him - many thousands of people (we can calculate possibly up to 10,000 people in total if there's 5000 men and some women and children as well.)  Jesus had fed them miraculously through the five loaves and two fish in the way that's been described in the episode where we covered the actual event.

Some of the crowd wanted to follow Jesus; they wanted to engage with him further, because this felt to them like a very significant moment. Indeed, some people felt that Jesus was giving a sign of his political ambitions as well as his power over people, his power over the natural world, and his power to provide through this miracle, and that he'd be some kind of a king or ruler amongst them. This was a mistake but it's something they felt. A number of the crowd followed Jesus back to Capernaum, gathered in the synagogue and engaged in a discussion with him - quite a substantial discussion - where Jesus tried to explain to them the deeper significance of his miracle of feeding the 5000. Obviously, it was a miracle of compassion; it was a prophetic miracle; it was a miracle that served an immediate need; it was a miracle that indicated his concern for the poor and needy and God's ability to provide and multiply. All those things were true but what was going on at a deeper level? Were people there just to spectate or were they going to become followers of Jesus and, if so, what did that mean?

In the last episode, Jesus leads them through a subtle and complex discussion where he's using metaphorical language to describe who he is. The principal image he uses is that he is ‘the bread of life.’ The physical bread that he broke on the side of the mountain for the 5000 is just an outward sign of some deeper reality and Jesus describes himself as ‘the bread of life’ in this discussion he had with the crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum. The discussion was tense and complex; people were unclear about what Jesus was exactly saying. There were some claims to divinity - to being closely connected to God the Father, of having come from the Father - which they found difficult. Some people said, “Surely, this is the young lad from Nazareth! We know the family. How can he have any divine status?” All that discussion has gone on in the last episode. It was quite a tense discussion because Jesus was pointing out that his claims were much deeper than just the claim to be able to perform miracles. He was actually calling upon people's loyalty, to believe in him, to trust in him and to find the meaning of their life through his mission - through his Kingdom, through his death, through his resurrection, through the forgiveness that he provides to those who believe in him - and people were confused and divided in their opinion. That's the immediate context for this particular discussion. John has already pointed out that, at the very end of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, such was the euphoria and the excitement of many in the crowd that they actually wanted to make him a ruler at that particular point. I'll just read again what John says - we mentioned this in earlier episodes but it's worth repeating here. John 6: 14 and 15:

‘After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is... come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.’

John 6:14-15, NIV

They wanted to come and make him king by force. There was a tremendous move to think Jesus is more than just some healer; he really is going to be a ruler over us. They wanted him to be a military leader, a political leader, and they wanted to, first of all, overthrow the king in that region. The ruler in that region who was called Herod Antipas - we've come across him on many occasions not least, recently, when he is stated as having executed John the Baptist. The crowd also really wanted to overthrow the whole Roman Empire, the whole Roman establishment behind Herod Antipas and maybe wanted Jesus to reclaim Jerusalem, reclaim the Temple, reclaim the Jewish faith, reclaim the Jewish land for Jewish control and get rid of all the foreign rulers in the country. Jesus did not want to go down that road, did not accept that they wanted to make him king, and in this moment of extreme popularity, he disappeared out of the crowd and went up the side of a mountain to pray on his own. That had all happened just prior to the events that we are talking about.

A True Disciple?

The question that Jesus provoked the people to discuss in the last episode was essentially: what is a true disciple? Jesus used that terminology. A disciple is a follower, a learner, someone who has submitted themselves to the teaching and the leadership of another person. A disciple is a representation of a significant relationship and commitment to the message and the person. Jewish rabbis, in those days, had their own groups of disciples and followers and they were all over the country. You could sometimes see them walking together, talking together, studying together and working together. The question here is: are the people who have so far followed Jesus really, truly, disciples? There are three categories of people that are involved in the story. There's the Twelve (the twelve disciples, or the twelve Apostles), there's the other full believers in Jesus who are in the crowd, and there are some who are just casual followers of him and really want him to take a political role and to turn his miracles against the Romans and against their under-rulers like Herod Antipas in Galilee. Jesus confronts the issues that have arisen in this discussion in the passage that we are now going to study. We're going to look at John 6: 60 - 66:

‘On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it? ”61Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words (I've) spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. 64Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them. ”66From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.’

John 6:60-66, NIV

Some of them felt that Jesus’ teaching was, what's described in verse 60, a ‘hard teaching.’ Here's an example of that hard teaching from the previous passage,  6: 53, ‘“Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’

This is metaphorical teaching; it's imagery but it's really graphic! What on earth does that mean? It was kind of an offensive language to them! What Jesus is basically saying is that, as you believe, it's like the act of eating and drinking - it's a participation, it's a connection together - it's a metaphorical phrase but it offended some people. They were offended by the idea, in this teaching in the previous passage, of suffering - that Jesus was going to suffer. His death was going to bring life and his blood needed to be shed and they needed to, metaphorically, drink his blood. All this was very offensive to people. We see that what happens here is that people are now beginning to decide, which way are they going to go? They'd been in the crowd up till now but are they going to continue being in the crowd that follows Jesus? I think not from what takes place here!

The Ascension Predicted

What Jesus does in confronting his sceptics here is that he promises that he is going to ascend to heaven again. Verse 62: ‘“Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!”’ He adds another dimension to his teaching. He's spoken about suffering and dying and about resurrection but now, here, he speaks about ascension and he says, essentially, “I came from heaven,” (which is a point which is made in the previous passage) “and I'm going to return to heaven. What would it be if you saw me return to heaven? Would you suddenly realise who I am if you saw me return to heaven?” The interesting thing is, that's exactly what happened to the twelve Apostles (minus one, the 11 who were left when Jesus rose again from the dead). One day, after he had been with them several weeks after his resurrection, according to Acts 1: 9 - 11, after Jesus concluded his teachings to the Apostles it said:

‘After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11“Men of Galilee,” they said, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go(ing) into heaven.”’

Acts 1:9-11, NIV

It actually turns out that the Apostles saw the ascension of Jesus - they saw him disappearing physically - and the cloud we can understand to be a representation of the glory of God which often appeared like a cloud and the two men dressed in white we can take to be angels. Miraculously, Jesus does return to the right hand of his Father in heaven. That is a reality. It's promised prophetically here in John 6; it actually takes place in Acts 1 and it helps the Apostles to see who Jesus really is and not just to think about his role on the earth - and particularly the complex issue of his suffering, his death and his resurrection. He promised his ascension early so that the true disciples will persevere in faith because of the call of the Father and the help of the Holy Spirit. The conclusion, sadly, in verse 66:

‘From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.’

John 6:66, NIV
The Point of Decision

This point, which John identifies so clearly in the narrative of Jesus, is probably the moment when he has just got past his maximum popularity. I would identify his maximum popularity as being represented by the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the adulation and acclamation that came at that point and their desire to make him king. This happens immediately afterwards, roughly the next day that they gathered in the synagogue and they turned back and no longer followed him. This will be a trend that we will see now: Jesus still has a vast number of people in the crowds but there are people who have become disillusioned with him because he's not going to fulfil their political and their economic ambitions. We have to keep reminding ourselves that the Jewish people, to whom Jesus was ministering, were people who lived under the rulership of an occupying power. The Romans had been there many years by the time that Jesus came, and they had their puppet rulers (like Herod Antipas and others) in different parts of the country. They longed to be free and they interpreted the Old Testament in such a way that the Messiah was going to have a political role to overcome all the enemies of the Jewish people. They were half right in this because, actually, many of the Old Testament prophecies do point in the direction of a conquering king, a ruling Messiah, who would rule over the world in a kind of messianic age. That is, actually, an accurate representation of the Old Testament prophets; but it's only part of their message and this part of Jesus' ministry was not going to be taking place at this stage - it was going to be at his second coming, not at his first coming.

Many disciples turned away from Jesus at this point. This reminds us of the fact that it is important for Christians to understand that people who appear to be following Jesus are often not doing so wholeheartedly: they can change; can leave the church community; can leave the path of discipleship; and they can return back to their old ways very easily. This was represented, very decisively, by Jesus' Parable of the Sower: where the different kinds of seed was sown by the farmer onto good soil, stony soil, soil with many weeds in it and onto the path. There were a number of different outcomes and that was a representation of the fruitfulness of individual lives in the Kingdom of God. To remind you and help you connect with this, you know, why are these people stepping back? Well maybe we have an answer in the Parable of the Sower. Matthew 13, verse 20, where Jesus interprets the parable:

‘“The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since they have no root, they only last a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22(And then) The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.”’

Matthew 13:20-22, NIV

Here are two vivid examples of people who are saying, “Yes,” to the message initially but then we find out that they are either just purely nominal or that they are distracted. We don't know exactly which category the people fell into that are being described here in John 6 but we can imagine many of them were purely nominal, they'd followed Jesus in name only but not from the depths of their heart. This is a rather sad moment in the life and ministry of Jesus - a division is taking place.

The Response of the Twelve

Jesus then presses on and talks directly to his disciples in the remaining verses. Verse 67 to 71:

‘“(Do you want to leave me too), do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” 70Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” 71(He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)’

John 6:67-71, NIV

Jesus here provokes people to (the disciples) to reaffirm their faith - which Peter does very strongly, saying he doesn't want to go anywhere; how can he go anywhere else because Jesus has the words of eternal life? Then he reminds them that the Twelve are chosen by him. That choice was represented - after a night of prayer (recorded in Mark 3 and Luke chapter 6) when Jesus called a wide group of disciples to him and he picked out twelve and he said “I have chosen you” and the choice was, in Mark 3, verse 14:

‘He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach 15and to have authority to drive out demons,’

Mark 3:14-15, NIV

to be with him and then to have his authority to preach and overcome the powers of darkness. They have been called but he points out here that one of those twelve didn't truly believe and take on his calling and take on the message and becomes a false disciple - and that is Judas Iscariot.

This is the first negative reference to Judas Iscariot in the Gospels, so we're going to just be mindful of that but pick up the story later on where certain things happen which reveal the character and outlook of Judas Iscariot - his selfishness and his ultimate unbelief in the calling that he's been given and the faith that he has been offered.


As we conclude our episode and we conclude two episodes together where we've looked at John chapter 6 - which is a long and complex passage. What conclusions and reflections can we draw? This is a key moment of choice. Jesus' popularity cannot be guaranteed from now onwards. People who follow him will have to do so much more out of conviction. This, of course, is something that many of us understand only too well because in our countries, in different parts of the world, to be a Christian is not always popular - sometimes it's extremely unpopular and difficult to be a follower of Jesus. Now, the disciples are moving towards a time of increasing conflict and difficulty, where they're going to face opposition but the true nature of discipleship is revealed in this passage: discipleship is based on the utter conviction that there is no other way of life worth living except following Jesus. I think that would represent how I feel about discipleship and it's represented here by Peter, verse 68:

‘“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”’

John 6:68-69, NIV

Discipleship is based on utter conviction about spiritual truth, about the identity of Jesus and utter conviction about what he brings to our lives, and a willingness, in the short term, for a difficult life in order to pursue a great calling. Discipleship embraces the two different parts of Jesus' calling; this is what the wider group of people in conversation with Jesus had really struggled to embrace. They were very happy with the fact if he was the Jewish Messiah he was going to be some kind of a political and spiritual leader in the nation and basically get rid of all their problems -get rid of foreign rulers, get rid of the Romans, get rid of all their underlings and all the corruption in the country - they were very happy with that but they were not happy with the explicit teaching of Jesus that the first thing that Jesus the Messiah must do is to suffer and to die and then to rise again from the dead. This really didn't appeal to the crowds at all and is the reason why they began to drift away and there was division at this point.

A true disciple of Jesus will fully embrace the fact that during his earthly life his mission, primarily, was to launch the Kingdom of God into a hostile world and to create a Kingdom community, the Church, the community of faith, through his death on the cross and his resurrection and that his death achieved a New Covenant, achieved atonement (forgiveness) and he offers that forgiveness for sins to anyone who believes. A true disciple will be rooted in those realities and think, “That is the basis of my life!” A true disciple will also anticipate Jesus returning again in glory and power in the Second Coming - bringing physical resurrection, bringing judgement of his enemies and bringing a messianic age or the Kingdom of God into fulfilment. What's starting now will reach its full measure at the coming of Christ - that's what Christian disciples believe and we have to have a good engagement with both the comings of Jesus, and what they represent, in order to live a mature Christian life and to hold steady in difficult times.

The story of the New Testament is largely a story of difficult times. Jesus had difficult times, ending in great suffering. The Early Church had many difficult times as it grew quickly, with great power but it didn't enjoy entire popularity. Opposition came very quickly and so a characteristic voice from the letters describing the common experience of Christians is probably the book of James and I want to just end this study by linking what we've said now with James' comments at the beginning of chapter 1: 2 - 4, because they describe the normal Christian life, as we might say:

‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ ‘Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds’

James 1:2-4, NIV

The trials he had in mind certainly included economic problems and persecution, challenging personal situations which was the background of the people that he was writing to. This is a common situation and so this passage in John 6 describes the moment of division when people were really counting the cost. Did they want to follow Jesus wholeheartedly or did they want the benefits of his ministry and the possibility that he might just solve their problems? This issue remains vivid today because if you want to be a follower of Jesus you have to really embrace the wider significance of his message and the fact that it can be a costly journey. You embrace it because you know it's worth it. The end destination is phenomenal! Eternal life, resurrection and, along the way, Jesus is ‘the bread of life’ as it says in John 6 and verse 35:

‘“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”’

John 6:35, NIV

As we go along the complex journey of Christian discipleship, we know that we have an inner satisfaction that we're doing the right thing. We have peace with God; we're forgiven; and there's purpose in our lives. We also know that the final destiny is guaranteed and that the next life - eternal life, resurrection life, the New Heaven and the New Earth - is a wonderful, wonderful world that we will inherit in days to come and all we must do is draw more people into God's Kingdom. This great choice is what this passage is about: Jesus divides opinion and he's still dividing opinion today. I'm encouraging you, if you are a follower of Jesus, to underline and confirm your commitment to him wholeheartedly today and I'm encouraging you, if you're enquiring about Christian faith, to pursue the journey and to see who Jesus is and to join those who've decided to follow him as disciples. Thanks for reading.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Three groups of people are highlighted. Which group do you fit into today?
  • Discipleship
    1. What is a true disciple?
    2. What helps you to stand firm and hold tight to your faith in the face of opposition?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What makes people turn away from God?
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