OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST.
111.—THE EFFECTS OF THIS DISCOURSE ON HIS DISCIPLES IN WORD, AND ON HIS DISCIPLES IN DEED.
JOHN VI. 60-71.
§ 1. On his Professed Disciples.
The impression made by this discourse on those who heard it, is described by the evangelist in the 60th verse:—'Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?" (John vi. 60). The "disciples" is here plainly a general term, descriptive of all who, under the impression that Jesus was a divine messenger, probably the Messiah, were in the habit of waiting on his ministrations, and of course comprehended under it persons of considerably diversified views respecting the design of the Messiah's mission, and the nature of his kingdom. The great body of these disciples seem plainly to have been looking only for a temporal prince, and a national deliverance. To them the discourse which they had heard must have been anything but satisfactory. Jesus had had a very fair opportunity afforded him of avowing himself, in plain terms, the long-expected deliverer of Israel, and of commencing that career which, as they hoped, was to end in the emancipation of the chosen people, and the subjugation of the world. But instead of doing this, while he had not indistinctly intimated that he was indeed the promised Messiah, he had spoken nothing about raising armies, fighting battles, taking cities, obtaining wealth and honour for his followers; but had delivered to them a mystical discourse, which, so far as they could get a glimpse of its meaning, was altogether inconsistent with their views, fatal to their hopes—a discourse about the superiority of the meat that endureth unto eternal life over the bread that perisheth—about himself being the bread of life—about his coming down from heaven, and giving his flesh for the life of the world—about the necessity of eating his flesh, and drinking his blood.
The effect produced by the delivery of such a discourse, to such an audience, was just what might have been anticipated. Many of them, when they heard it, said, "This is an hard saying; who can hear it?" The word "saying" refers not exclusively to the concluding observation recorded in the 58th verse, but to the whole discourse. The words of these dissatisfied disciples admit of a two-fold interpretation. They may mean, 'This is a very obscure discourse —obscure as to be unintelligible; who can comprehend—who can make sense—of it?' Or, 'This discourse contains in it sentiments quite irreconcilable with our most fixed opinions, and most fondly cherished hopes; who can believe it?' The last of these is, I apprehend, the true import of the words, as spoken by these disciples. This seems plain from the fact that they were offended at the discourse. They were stumbled by it, that is, it shook their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. This seems the meaning of tile phrase "offended," when used in such a connection. "Blessed," said our Lord to John the Baptist's messengers—"Blessed is he who is not offended in me." (Matt. xi. 6). And we find they were so stumbled, that many of them went back and walked no more with him. It seems obvious that it was not what was obscure, but what was plain, in our Lord's discourse, that was offensive to them, and that led them to the conclusion, that it was in vain to expect from Jesus the Nazarene, what they had been accustomed to expect from the Messiah. "This is an hard saying," seems not so much, 'These statements are unintelligible,' as, 'These statements are inadmissible;' and "who can hear it?" seems not so much, 'Who can understand them?' as, 'Who can believe them?"
These expressions of dissatisfaction were not openly made. They only murmured such things "among themselves." But Jesus knew in himself what was the state of their minds. "He needed not that any should testify to him of man, he knew what was in man." He made it plain that he was the searcher of the hearts—the trier of the reins—a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart—and that all things were naked and open to Him with whom they had to do. "When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you?" (John vi. 61). 'Does this stumble you? Do these statements, which, though not fully understood by you, are plainly incompatible with your opinions and wishes respecting the blessings to be obtained and bestowed by the Messiah—do these statements shake to dissolution your half-formed faith in me as the Messiah? Even though they should, I cannot retract them; I must reiterate them. Everything I have to say to you, everything that is to happen to me, will more and more confirm the conviction that I am not the kind of Messiah you are expecting, or wish for. "What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" (John vi. 62).
These words are somewhat difficult of interpretation. They are elliptical. As they stand in the original, they are just—"and," or even, "if ye see the Son of man ascend up where he was before." There are some things, and some very important things, stated here, which are perfectly plain; let us look at them first. Our Lord asserts here that the Son of man—that is, himself as Messiah—"was about to ascend up where he was before." The Jews, as appears from chapter xii. 34, expected that the Messiah was to "abide for ever," remain permanently among them. Our Lord intimates here, that, instead of remaining on earth to establish the worldly kingdom they were anticipating, he was, after having given his flesh for the life of the world, to return to heaven from whence he had come down.
The pre-existence of our Lord—his pre-existence in heaven—previously to his appearing among men, is as plainly stated in these words as language can state it; and with all the ingenuity which belongs to the opposers of that doctrine—and we readily acknowledge they are possessed of no ordinary degree of it—they have failed, and ever must fail, of bringing any other meaning out of them. Having finished the work which he was sent to do on earth, which was chiefly to "give his flesh for the life of the world," he was to return to the bosom of the Father, and be "glorified with the glory which he had there before the world was."
Our Lord farther intimates, that the Jews should "see him ascend up where he was before." The word "see," is equivalent to 'shall know—know on the most satisfactory evidence.' Our Lord's apostles beheld with the bodily eye the Son of man ascend from earth towards heaven, and all the varied evidence which supports the truth of Christianity generally assures us that he has sat down on the right hand of God in the heaven of heavens. These statements are plain enough. 'The Son of man shall ascend up where he was before,'—'Ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before;' but what is the meaning of the words, "and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?"
They are plainly, as we have said, elliptical; and it is somewhat doubtful how the ellipsis should be supplied. It may be supplied thus,—"What," that is, 'what will you think,' 'what will you say,'—" if you see the Son of man ascend up where lie was before!" or, 'Will you still be offended,' "if ye see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" Those who consider the objection of the disciples as referring to the obscurity of our Lord's discourse, suppose that the import of these words of our Lord is,—'You find these sayings of mine obscure, because you are disposed to understand them literally, not figuratively, as they ought to be understood. Surely, when I leave the world altogether, and return to heaven, you will see that my words must be interpreted figuratively, in which case there is no difficulty of understanding them.'
I rather think the import of our Lord's question is this: 'Will ye still be offended with my doctrine with respect to the spiritual nature of the blessings which I, the Son of man, have come to procure and bestow, when, by withdrawing from this world and returning to my native heaven, I have made it quite obvious that I have no design to set up such a temporal kingdom as you are dreaming of?'
The words that follow seem intended still farther to meet the misapprehensions of these murmuring disciples. "It is the Spirit that that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." (John vi. 63). These words must be differently interpreted, according as you suppose the murmurings of the disciples directed against the statements of our Lord's discourse as unintelligible, or as inadmissible—incredible.
In the first case, the words would mean, 'You are occupied with the body of my discourse—its words. You overlook its spirit—its meaning. If you allow your mind to rest on the words and the figures merely, you will get no good from it—it will necessarily appear unintelligible; but if you lay hold of the truth which these words and figures embody, you will find that they have a meaning—a meaning powerful in producing happiness; for my words, rightly understood, are spirit—full of energy, and life —capable of communicating happiness.'
In the second case, the meaning seems to be, "'It is the Spirit that quickens "—these words, understood literally, looking at the flesh, the body, in which the sentiment is clothed, may, indeed, well appear to he incredible;' but when you discern their spirit, there is nothing incredible in the statement made by me, a divinely-accredited messenger, that men are to be saved by faith in me, dying as a victim in their room.' By other interpreters, the meaning has been thus given—'It is spiritual things—spiritual blessings—that constitute man's true happiness. The flesh profits nothing. Carnal, material, temporary benefits, such as power, and honour, and splendour, which you are desiring and hoping for, do not, cannot, constitute men truly happy. "My words are spirit, and they are life." My doctrine is a spiritual and a life-giving thing. He who understands and believes it, obtains possession of true permanent happiness, to the attainment of which the possession of all secular enjoyment will be found utterly ineffectual.'
Our Lord added, "But there are some of you that believe not;" (John vi. 64), q. d., 'I know that some—that many of you—notwithstanding your professions, do not really believe me to be a divine messenger; for you are not disposed to receive as true whatever I declare to be so: you receive my doctrine only so far as it coincides with your preconceived opinions. Did you really believe, instead of saying, "This is an hard saying, who can hear it?" you would have said, It is a true saying, and we will hear it?' It is possible, too, that our Lord meant to suggest the important truth, that it is the believer alone who can experimentally know that his words are spirit and life. To the unbeliever, who sees merely the outside of them, they profit nothing; they are not understood, they are not influential.
The evangelist remarks, in a kind of parenthetical note, "For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him." (John vi. 64). He was never imposed on. When he called Judas to be an apostle, he knew that he would be the traitor.
After saying "there are some of you that believe not," our Lord adds, "Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father." Our Lord refers to what he had said at the 44th verse, 'Because I was aware that many of you were not true believers in me, I told you that, unless you were drawn by the Father, unless you were taught of God, unless you heard and learned of the Father, you never could be my disciples in deed.'
The consequence of these statements made by our Lord was, that, "from that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him: (John vi. 66) "that is, they withdrew from attending on his teaching; they no longer followed him from place to place; they returned to their ordinary occupations, convinced that he was not the Messiah they expected or wished for. Their secular expectations were disappointed, and their real character disclosed. They saw two things very plainly: He was not the master they wished for, and they were not the kind of followers he wished for.
When those who had professed to be his disciples were retiring in crowds, our Lord turned to the little band of the chosen twelve, who seem always to have kept close to him, and said to them, "Will ye also go away ?" (John vi. 67)—'Are ye also disposed to leave me?' In these words, our Lord intimates that he wishes no unwilling followers—that they who do not will to stay with him may go.
With a single exception, which our Lord himself immediately adverts to, the apostles were sincere believers in his divine mission and Messiahship. They were in many things prejudiced and mistaken; but they were fully persuaded that their Master was the promised deliverer, and they were expecting from him something better than a mere temporal deliverance.
Peter, with his characteristic forwardness and ardour, replied to the touching question of his Master, "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe, and are sure, that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God." (John vi. 68, 69). It is as if he had said, 'We cannot depart from thee, for we know not where else to go to find such a master. We have no wish to depart. Thou, thou only, hast what we so much need—the words of eternal life; thou, thou alone, canst teach us the way to true happiness, and lead us in the way which thou openest up to us. We are fully persuaded thou art the promised Messiah, the Son of God.'
It is difficult, or rather impossible, for us to say accurately what ideas Peter at this time attached to the appellation, "Son of the living God." We know what it means; and that in all its extent of meaning, it is applicable to him to whom Peter applies it.
In reply to Peter's confession in the name of his brethren, our Lord gave the following most impressive warning—"Have I not chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?" (John vi. 70). The word devil, in our language, is the distinctive appellation of a particular class of depraved intelligences. The original term is less restrictive. Here it is equivalent either to 'enemy,' or 'false accuser.' 'Even in this little band, in whose name you have professed unbroken attachment, there is one false-hearted person.' The remark was made to put them all on their guard, to make each of them say, "Lord, is it I?"
The reference was to Judas Iscariot, who afterwards betrayed him into the hands of his enemies. (John 7:71). It has been supposed, and the conjecture is probable, that Judas, who had originally connected himself with Jesus from worldly motives, in the hope that he would secure a high place in the kingdom to be established, first conceived the thought of betraying his Master on hearing statements so completely irreconcilable with the notion that he was to be a temporal prince.
I cannot conclude my illustrations of this discourse better, than in the pertinent and pious reflections of Dr Doddridge. "We have, through the Divine goodness, been made acquainted with these gospel truths in their full evidence and mutual connection, which were more obscurely hinted to those who attended on Christ's personal ministry. May we hearken to the spiritual sense of this sublime and excellent discourse, earnestly entreating the influences of Divine grace, that we may not only be drawn to Christ, but be so firmly attached to his interests, that whosoever else forsake him, we may never go. And may instances of apostasy, which, alas, are to be found in our age, as well as in the primitive one, lead us to serious self-inquiry, and to humble dependence on Him, who alone can 'strengthen, stablish, and settle us' in the faith of the truth, and enable us to 'hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of our hope, firm unto the end.'"
John Brown of Edinburgh was a Scotch Burgher minister, eldest son of Rev. John Brown of Whitburn, Linlithgowshire, and grandson of John Brown of Haddington. He was born on July 12, 1784 and died at Edingburgh October 13, 1848. He studied at Edinburgh and the divinity hall of the Burgher Church at Selkirk; was licensed 1805 and ordained minister of the Burgher Church of Biggar, Lanarkshire, 1806. After serving several more pastorates he became professor of exegetical theology to the United Associate Synod after 1834. He was strongly in favor of the separation of church and state, and in 1845 was tried (and acquitted) before the synod on a charge of holding unsound views concerning the atonement.
He was a fine orator and a voluminous writer; the most prominent of his works are: Exposition of the Discourses and Sayings of our Lord Jesus Christ (3 Vols. 1850); The Resurrection of Life, an exposition of I Cor. xv. (1852); Expository Discourses on Galatians (1853); and the Analytical Exposition of the Epistle of Paul to the Romans (1857).