Let’s try a small quiz: Is the Bible literally true? No. Is salvation obtained by works? Yes. Do people get to choose to come to Christ to be saved? No… and Yes. John 6 is a momentous chapter and one in which Jesus really starts to ‘tell it as it is’. Perhaps the death of his relative and forerunner, John the Baptist, spurred him on to tell the plain truth regardless of consequences.
The Scriptures are totally inspired by God, I believe. But they are a complex and varied library of literature too. There are obviously historical parts, poetic-, prophetic-, revelatory-, wisdom- and didactic parts to it, and we ignore the particular genre at our peril. If we read “All the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12) we assume that we are reading poetry. Taking the bible too literally is as dangerous as treating it all as metaphorical. The gift and skill of Bible interpretation is to determine which genre you are reading and therefore how that passage should be interpreted. Gifted teachers make complicated scriptures simple, simple thoughts profound, and profound ideas life-changing.
The Jews, schooled in the Pentateuch and having just experienced a very physical miracle of catering, were not in the mind-set of metaphor. “Do us another food trick!” they demanded of Jesus, to prove that he was a worthy rival to the Moses who had fed the entire nation for 40 years. Patiently, Jesus explained that (a) It was not Moses who did that, but God; and (b) God had just done it again in their presence by sending the True Bread from heaven – i.e. Jesus. They stared at him, baffled.
This is where metaphor becomes more real than the physical: “I am the Bread of Life”, he claimed. (The first of seven mentions of “I Am” in John’s gospel.) “Just as you work for physical bread, put your efforts into finding this greater bread that will give you wonderful eternal everlasting life”. That made them ask (literally again): “So what work do we do to obtain that bread?” Therefore, Jesus explained: “The work that you must do is to believe in me”. So, then, salvation is by works in a manner of speaking – although I’m sure that Jesus said “works” in quotes!
There is a one-off sense in which we must come to Jesus to have life – and you can’t lose that eternal life or else you didn’t have it in the first place; but there is another sense in which we need to come to him daily or hourly or continuously, to live in that life and to feed on his presence. As we do that, our little earthly lives are transformed by the nourishment from Heaven and this eternal life leaks out to a hungry world around us. Our local supermarket pumps out the smell of baking bread from its in-store bakery and this attracts the hungry (and not-so-hungry) locals into the shop. As we feed on the living Bread from Heaven, our neighbours and friends and work colleagues will also be attracted to him. On the other hand, if we satisfy ourselves with last week’s stale bread, then we will be malnourished, and they will not be attracted.
So, eating his flesh and drinking his blood is not about cannibalism, nor is it about Communion, and certainly not about the ‘Mass’, which is full of heresy. It is about a complete trust in Jesus, a commitment of your life to his life forever, and an acknowledgment of his Lordship over your own wishes and desires. ‘Work’ at that, and you will live forever – and be raised from the dead when you die!
Can any of us choose that, at any time? Think about: “No-one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:44). In addition: “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me, I will never drive away” (v37). See also verse 65. Of all the gospel writers, John (who knew the Lord best of all) emphasises the sovereignty of the Father over the entire process and scope of salvation in our lives. He chooses who shall be saved and when. “No-one can come… unless…” – this is a hard teaching and not one that comes intuitively to 21st Century Western believers. We can’t deal with this adequately in today’s blog, but on the other hand, we cannot ignore the teaching of the scriptures and the sayings of Jesus. The key is to correctly interpret in your own mind what the scripture says, and then to bring your thoughts, emotions, and actions into line with that. This topic will be re-visited in future blogs.
More comfortingly, verse 37 has both ‘sovereign’ and ‘inclusive’ halves, ending with “…whoever comes to me, I will never drive away”. We can therefore be sure that if you want to come to Christ, if you want to commit your life to him, then you will be welcomed with open arms. Don’t let some of these issues of sovereignty put you off! The work that God requires is to believe in his Son. Just do it!