by Felipe Diez III
Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John begins with the miracle of the feeding of 5,000 people, which is also found in the Synoptic tradition. Following this wonderful sign of God’s providence, Jesus performs another miracle, this time, only in the presence of his disciples. He walks on water as another sign that establishes the power of the Messiah over the elements of nature. When he arrives on land, the crowds catch up to him, asking Jesus to perform more signs, in their unbelief, so that they themselves could eat again and marvel at what Jesus may be able to provide for them. They regarded Jesus as a prophet, and were seeking to assure themselves of his kingship by persuading Jesus to continue feeding them in the same way that Moses did, many thousands of years before, when the Israelites were stranded in the desert. Jesus reminds them that the miracle is not to be attributed to Moses, but to God, and that God is presently providing a wonderful sign in the Messiah Himself, for the people, who can deliver them from their spiritual hunger. In desperation, the people ask Jesus to “always give us this bread” (v.34) This essay will examine John 6: 35-45 exegetically, when the words of Jesus uncover the unbelief of the crowds, giving striking reasons as to their lack of faith in contrast with how Jesus relates to his small band of disciples in their own context of faith.
God sent his Son, the Messiah, into this setting, so that these very people, the house if Israel, would recognize their hunger for Him. The Person of Jesus Christ could satisfy a hunger that was spiritual and eternal – something that the people who had been fed did not seem to understand. They, reminding themselves of the great provision of Yahweh done through Moses in the desert, could not have imagined the even greater provision that God has provided in the Person of Jesus. However, such a great infinite treasure was patently rejected by most of the people out of misunderstanding, folly, and unbelief. The enigmatic but profound statement of Jesus “I am the Bread of Life” (v. 35a) was aimed at the crowds, even to the disciples, in order to expound this axiom that He is in fact the very culmination and center of God’s gracious providence for eternally hungry people. Verse 35b explains the ramifications of the benefits of coming to Jesus in great reverence for Him and not simply for a sign or a meal “he who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” One could imagine the thoughts running through the minds of everyone who was there. There were no more signs by this Messiah to be performed, and no more food to be consumed, but simply a teaching that might have seemed to them as stale and confusing, in comparison to the miraculous feeding and His unusually quick arrival to the area across the sea. To Jesus, “coming” was synonymous to “believing,” it seems. And again, verse 36 is a clear example of Jesus not only having foreseen the people’s unbelief at that point, but stating what he has perceived in their hearts for perhaps a long period of time. “But I said to you that you have seen me, and yet do not believe.” We may be able to deduce from the word “said,” in past tense, that Jesus was speaking of a time, shortly earlier, where he had told the crowds a similar thing.1
God’s sovereignty in the words of Jesus
There exists a profound reason as to the people’s inability to believe, and this reason begins to unravel in the next verse, as Jesus commences what will be a magnificent and revealing discourse that not only exposes the hearts and intentions of the crowds, but of all people everywhere, at all times. “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out” (v. 37). It may be reasonable to explain part b of this verse first by asserting that those who believe in Jesus and come to Him with faith will not be rejected. In other words, if there is a person who recognizes Jesus as Messiah and comes to him, that person will not turned away but received by Jesus. A believer can have assurance that she or he will not be “blocked” from the full forgiveness and acceptance of Christ. They will be included in the Kingdom, being granted the full benefits of adoption and eternal life. The reason that Jesus gives for the statement in part b of verse 37 is that the Father has already accepted believers who will most assuredly come to Christ in saving faith. The Father has granted these people to the Son, and the Son readily accepts them. The words “all” and “will” in this verse speak volumes of how God’s will and sovereignty come into play with regards to believing humans and how they react to Jesus. This verse gives the strong impression that every single person that the Father grants Jesus to be forgiven will come to Jesus to be forgiven with certainty. Dr. James White mentions:
“Christ is not speaking of theories here. He asserts plainly, without equivocation, that all that are given to Him by the Father will come to Him. Clearly we see here the complete sovereignty of God as the owner of all men. He is free to give men to the Son as their Lord and Savior.”2
The logic follows that there cannot be anyone that the Father gives to the Son that will not come to the Son, thereby securing these people in full to be received by Jesus. So to state the reasoning of the passage fully, it can be stated that the Father does not fail to give the Son every single person that the Father has intended to give the Son. In the same sense, the Son does not fail to receive all of those that are given to Him because he wishes to do the will of the Father. Verse 38 states: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me,” Therefore, everyone that is “transacted” to Jesus (who was sent by the Father to receive the people) could never fail to be received by Jesus because Jesus came to do the perfect will of the Father. This, of course, he accomplished perfectly. None of those numbered will be turned away. Neither can they turn away if they wish because it is their full intention to arrive to saving faith at the feet of Jesus, whom He will “not cast out.” Their inclination is not to stay away from Jesus but to arrive to Him because the Father has already determined that they be inclined in this manner. There is a language of Sovereign guarantee in every sense in verses 37 and 38. There is no room for failure or error on the part of the Father and the Son.
Verse 39 graces us with an explanation as to what the will of God with regards to people who are drawn to the Son is. “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” Jesus reiterates the fact that his mission is to keep everyone (lose nothing) that the Father intended for him to receive without doubt. However, Jesus adds something that he has not said before, even in the whole of the chapter, which is his intention to raise “it” on the last day. Following the logic of the three verses we have already examined, it stands to reason that “it” refers to the people that are to come to Jesus that have been reserved by the Father, whose will is to finally have them raised up on the last day. This “last day” may refer to the resurrection of the dead for judgment or those that will be given new bodies in Heaven. These people will eventually be raised, judged, and glorified. They are not offered a “half salvation” or an “almost” salvation. White states:
“The Son is not simply charged with securing a hypothetical possibility of salvation for the elect, but with actually saving completely those who are the objects of God’s loving grace.”3
Jesus here reveals4 the intention of the Father to give and to glorify everyone that He wills to be glorified. It is interesting to note that in verse 39, Jesus did not explicitly refer to the Father, but mentions “Him who sent me.” But in verse 40, the implicit reference is replaced: “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” This is an expanded version of verse 39, where Jesus states that those people reserved for Him will have eternal life, thus strengthening the argument for the imminent glorification of said people by Jesus Himself. These people, no longer referred to as “it,” now are referred to as “everyone” in verse 40 – a more clear and transparent revelation that continues to unravel important information concerning the narrative’s development.
The Response of the People
“Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, “I am the bread that came down out of heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, ‘I have come down out of Heaven?’” The Scriptures are not clear as to how many people out of the crowds did the grumbling, or if any had left by this point. One could only imagine the pain Jesus felt at their seemingly wholesale rejection of His words and His person. They took issue with the statement with respect to the origin of Jesus. Since Jesus was known by many in the crowds as simply a man with a family whose father was mentioned by name5, it struck them as absurd that Jesus would claim to have “come down out of Heaven.” Again, their unbelieving hearts are exposed in these two verses. This situation is also found in the Synoptic tradition when the people rejected Jesus for similar reasons. The four Gospel writers probably included this rejection of Jesus due to his humble heritage to make a strong point “He was despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah. 53:3a)
The Response and Teaching of Jesus
Surprisingly, in John’s Gospel, Jesus answers the people in a very different manner when they rejected Him. This passage, upholding the sovereignty of God, records Jesus rebuking the grumbling Jews and uttering one of the most challenging reasons for the lack of faith of the crowds.
“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.’” (verses 43 and 44)
After this rebuke in verse 43, Jesus continues with the phrase “no one can come to Me.” It seems that what is being implied here is that there is an inability for people to come to Jesus. The “no one” part is referring not only to those in the crowd, but to all people everywhere at all times. Jesus includes the word “unless,” which is being used as a conjunction, and which would lead one to the conclusion that there are people who could and will come to Jesus, but with a condition. Verse 34a addresses this condition: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” We can conclude that the conditions for being able to come to Jesus are if the people are “drawn” to Jesus. It is the Father who establishes and fulfills this condition: A person (A) cannot arrive (B) to Jesus (C) unless The Father (D) draws that person (E). So if the Father (D) does not draw the person (E), then it follows that the person (A) is unable to come (B) to Jesus (C). Since this passage exists in the context of belief and salvation, we can say that those whom the Father does not draw will not believe and be saved. This was the explanation give by Jesus as to why the grumbling occurred and why the crowds were ambivalent and even offended by the words of Jesus, namely, because they were those who manifested their unbelief. This leads us to the conclusion that the grumblers were those who were not drawn. It was not the purpose or desire of the Father to draw them.
Verse 43 concludes with “and I will raise him up at the last day,” This is the third time in this discourse that Jesus repeats himself in this manner, but the crowds seem to ignore this. John probably recorded this saying in this way so as to highlight the importance of the theme of resurrection not only for Jesus but certainly for humans as well.
The Elect are Taught by God
Verse 45 provides some extra information that sheds light on the spiritual issues surrounding people who are elected by the Father to come to Jesus and also states the means that God uses to draw people to Jesus and why the people are possibly drawn in this way. “It is written in the prophets ‘and they shall all be taught of God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.” In this verse, the elect are those who hear from the Father. Their spiritual ears are opened and they are ready to receive something from God. It is possible that John places the word “learned” after “heard” in order to convey the message that people who learn from the Father are those whose ears are open. One can make the argument that it is God who opens their ears to make them receptive to His teaching. Jesus appeals to the Old Testament to prove that all of those who come to Jesus have been taught by God to do so. They come because they are miraculously taught the way to salvation, and every one of them listens and obeys. In a section in John whose premise is somewhat similar to what occurs in part of John 6, Jesus prays:
“In John 17:2 Christ prays for those whom the Father has given Him, which is a definite number. ‘As thou has given Him power over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as thou has given him.’”6
The Father teaches and the Son prays for these elect. There is a sense in which the elected people do not arrive “unlearned” like automatons, nor are they drawn as if there existed a direct violation of their intentions to come to Jesus. They are not puppets or robots, as these are unable to have a relationship with God in the first place since they are not even sentient beings. The elect are drawn because they are taught. The exact teaching of the Father to the people is not explicitly stated, but it is possible that what is being taught to the people is that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, who satiates hunger and thirst, and gives eternal life. This teaching would cause the people to perceive objectively that these benefits and even Christ alone is who they truly long for. By this means of teaching, the Father effectually draws people to the Son, as they have come to be enlightened by the teaching of the Father. Their hearts are now receptive to the Gospel, and the people cannot help but respond in gratitude, somewhat akin to a dying hungry beggar who has been told where to find food, and in his desperation, immediately runs to gather it. Christ, the “bread of life,” will supply eternal life in accordance with the teaching of the Father that causes them to believe.
The Crowds do not Believe
So far, the exegesis presented for these 10 verses has relied heavily on logic and flow of an argument. As far as non-believers are concerned, the same logic would apply but in “reverse.” Since Jesus reveals that there is a group of people who are given to the Father to come to Jesus, it follows that the rest of the people who did not believe were in this state because they were not given to Jesus. Since these verses seem to have a universal application for all people everywhere at all times, we can state the issue in the following manner: There exist believers (A) and non-believers (B). The ones that are given to Jesus by the Father believe, and those who are not given to Jesus do not believe. Those elected to be believers (A) will always believe while those not given to the Son, the non-believers, (B) will never believe. Therefore, only believers (A) will be raised on the last day. The non-believers (B) will not be raised, which leads us to say that they will not experience eternal life. These passages do not imply that those who are not chosen “want” to believe or even “can” believe, and they are somehow impeded access to Jesus, thus pushing them away. Verse 37b makes this very clear. Non-believers have no intention or inclination to believe let alone come to Jesus. This is the condition of fallen humanity until the elect, from this mass of perdition, come to saving faith by a sovereign act of God. The response of the Jews in verse 41 exposes their nature. These are not people who possess a desire to hear Jesus and to believe his words. “How does he now say, I have come down out of heaven?” Verse 40 does not picture people who are being drawn to the teaching. There is a strong reason to believe that, in their unbelief, they are not being taught by the Father or being drawn to the Son. They do not want to be drawn or compelled to come unto Christ. All they bring to the table are questions, excuses, accusations, and grumbling of various kinds. It can be stated with reasonable certainty that the same is the case for any person who disbelieves. In essence, they are confessing (at least implicitly) that Jesus did not come down from heaven. And if anyone in the crowd is not stating this, they are certainly thinking in this manner. Jesus, because of his status as Prophet and Messiah understood this (v.64). This is why many who followed Jesus or who would otherwise have followed Jesus no longer did so. (v.66) In their view, Jesus is not the Person He says He is. In their minds, Jesus would never be able to satisfy them in the way that Jesus has offered that he would. His teaching and His words seemed to them so ridiculous, enigmatic, and harsh (v.60). This constitutes a negation of Jesus as the Son of God, akin to calling Him a liar – hardly a disposition of desire to come to Jesus! They have not been drawn by the Father, as it was not the Father’s intention to do so from the beginning, even from eternity past. This can be concluded in its finality and totality by their persistent incredulity. The same can be said of many people today.
The Belief of the Disciples
How are the people that were drawn by the Father in this narrative? We must briefly mention the events after John 6: 35-45. Out of the whole of the people who were present that day to hear the words of Jesus concerning those who believe, it is important to note that His 12 disciples were there as Jesus spoke. After many of his other disciples had deserted Him (v.66), Jesus probed the faith of the original twelve in the next verse with the words “you do not want to go away also, do you?” In this statement, Jesus was not simply awaiting an unforeseen answer from the disciples, as He knew for sure that they would stay with Him (v.64b). He was simply testing them. Peter, the spokesman for the twelve, not only confessed that they had nowhere else to go (because Jesus had the words of eternal life), but that Christ was the Holy One of God. This is an explicit statement of belief as opposed to that of the crowds. (vv.67-69). However, Jesus did mention that one of the twelve would betray Him. John, in verse 71, puts an “aside” that it would be Judas Iscariot that would betray Jesus. Based on the narrative itself, it is reasonable to say that only 11 of the disciples out of the 5,000 who were originally fed were the ones who stayed with Jesus throughout His Sovereign discourse. Since the text of the narrative does not mention anyone else that explicitly believed in Jesus, it is safe to assume that the ones who believed and were drawn to Jesus by the Father were the 11 disciples that persevered in the faith with Jesus, even after His death and resurrection, and surely are to be raised on the last day.
Concerning Alternative Interpretations
Some scholars have taken issue with the aforementioned interpretation of these passages either in total or in part, often due to their theological leanings. It, then, would be proper in some circumstances to discuss other passages where the topic of election seems to be stated at least implicitly. Since an exegesis of other passages of scripture that pertain to election in such a manner are beyond the scope of this paper, they will not be treated.7 However, there are several things that can be mentioned with regards to the thoughts of others whose interpretations may differ. Some have postulated that the election that seems to be implied in John 6: 35-45 is on the condition of foreseen faith. In other words, some theologians would posit that God draws people to Christ on the basis of faith that God foresees. Then, on that basis, he draws them. In essence, since God is omniscient, he would then know of the actions that people would perform even before those people are born. In the same way, those who end up not being drawn to Jesus would be those whom God foresaw would not believe, and on that basis, He would then enact His decision to not grant to them eternal life via Christ. An example is given by Norman Geisler here:
“Therefore, if God has infallible foreknowledge of the future, including our free acts, then everything that will happen in the future is predetermined, even our free acts. This does not mean that our actions are not free; it simply means that God knew how we were going to use our freedom.”8
To other exegetes, this interpretation may seem as though God’s Sovereign decrees are being usurped by people’s autonomous free choice, thus placing humans on the pedestal. Since to them, sovereignty can only belong to either God or man in totality, they would see any kind of “balance” as something that cannot be synthesized. They would argue that the text of John 6 does not warrant such an interpretation; that there is no place in this chapter where we experience a “passive” God. They would posit that there is no reason to believe that people are given to the Son on any other pre-condition than God’s eternal decree to have mercy on whom he pleases to have mercy. God, in John 6, is not drawing all people:
“…if we understand John 6:44 to say that every person is drawn, then we must conclude that every person will be raised up by Jesus for salvation on the last day. But this is Universalism.”9
In this case, God’s mercy would be bestowed upon those who come to Christ as a pre-determined act of God’s unimpeded and impartial choice. Just as in the case of those who favor the “predetermined election” interpretation, the “conditional election” case can be determined (as some theologians would have it) by selecting other scriptures to support any kind of cumulative argument for any chosen method of interpreting John 6.
Some scholars and laypeople accept the “pre-determined election” interpretation, but consign it simply to the story itself. These would say that God is indeed electing human beings in such a manner that would not place the saving conditions on human choice. However, the scope of the passage would be limited only to this particular event. It would, according to them, not be an absolute certain way in which God deals with people everywhere. This view is scarcely argued and does not possess much of a following, since theologians from many camps would quickly state that the language that Jesus uses in key verses has a universal presupposition to it. “He who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” (v.35) There is no compelling reason to believe that “he” is confined to just the crowds. “You have seen Me, yet you do not believe” (v.36) does paint a slightly different picture. It is directed specifically to the crowds, but in a sense it can be applied to others who have heard the Gospel and rejected it. However, the “you” that Jesus speaks about here is limited to the crowd since it is doubtful that Jesus would be addressing the reader of the text as well. There seems to be no reason, in verse 37, to assume that the “all” that Jesus speaks about only refers to “all of those in the crowd.” The same can be said for the “all, “everyone,” and “no one” in verses 39, 40, and 44 respectively. Other than the “you” reference in verse 36, there is no indication in the language that Jesus uses that would posit a “crowd only” exegesis.
The interpretation that seems to fit with the narrative would be that of God who has decreed to give people to the Son, without taking into account whether or not the people believed and disbelieved before God, in eternity past, made that decision. The reading of the text itself does not give us reasons to believe that people are in control of the situation, even though they still do retain their sinful wills to disbelieve. Those who are drawn do so because they have been given a new heart (Ezek. 36-26) and a gift from above (Eph. 2:8) and are receptive to the teaching of the Father whom they learn from. They will come to Jesus, not out of compulsion, but because they have miraculously realized by faith that he is the Son. These will by no means be cast away and will be raised on the last day.
This marvelous example of John’s exposition of election unto Christ depicts Jesus and the Father as working together in love and for reasons of love toward ill deserving humans. John 6:35-45 should not be viewed as a malicious wholesale rejection by the part of God to the crowds. It would be remembered, whenever it is read, as an instance of sovereign mercy and grace to those who have been chosen to be God’s people, not by their own intrinsic righteousness or merit, but by the decision of the secret counsel of the Lord to redeem equally undeserving people. We must bow our heads in thanks that Jesus accepts us and counts us among those who were drawn by the Father, selected to be raised with new resurrected bodies on the day of the Lord.
1 The verse that Jesus was possibly alluding to when he said “but I said to you” is the 26th verse of the same chapter when Jesus states prophetically that the people were not interested in believing and coming to Him or even the signs, but only for the sake of another meal. The people had indeed seen the signs in a physical sense, but not in a spiritual sense that would have led to their belief in Christ as a provision for their true needs – to be forgiven and filled with eternal life.
2 White, James. Drawn By The Father. Reformation Press. New York, NY, 2000, p. 20
3 Ibid. p.41
4 Here, Jesus reveals the intention of the Father to the crowd. In Luke 10:22, He again makes a similar revelation about the Father, focusing on the Person of the Father.
5 Similar occurrences are recorded in Mark 6:3, Matthew 13: 55-57, and Luke 4:22. Jesus responded in these instances by stating that “a prophet has no honor in his own land.” This was probably a typical reason for rejecting Jesus.
6 McMahon, Matthew C. The Two Wills of God: Does God Really Have Two wills? Puritan Publications, New Lennox, IL, 2005. p. 98. Dr. McMahon loosely argues that John 17 and John 6 are passages that pertain to election and reprobation in the Calvinistic sense.
7 A passage of scripture is almost never isolated. This is why systematic theology aims to take in consideration other passages – mostly those who seem to be more clear. In light of those passages, many systematic theologians would then interpret other verses that seem to be not as clear.
8 Geisler, Norman L. Chosen but Free. Bethany House Publishers. Ada, MI, 2001. p.45
9 Peterson, Robert A. and Williams, Michael D. Why I Am Not an Arminian. Inter Varsity Press. Downers Grove, IL, 2004. p. 167 [italics mine]