Study Notes 12-15-13: John 15 Introduction

Chapter 15

Introduction to Chapter 15 (and notes through verse 5)

I continue to be amazed by John’s gospel and how the depth of the theology within its pages keeps me humble.  There are so many truths in each paragraph that a Christian could spend the rest of their lives reading and meditating upon the precepts found here and still not plumb the depths of their beauty.

This factor hits home when you consider stories like that of Corrie ten Boom who spent 11 months as a prisoner of the Nazi’s. In an interview with theological midget Pat Robertson, Corrie expressed God’s continual presence and strength during times of despair:

PAT ROBERTSON: She died there, and in that time God somehow kept you sweet and tender toward Him. How did you do it? How did you keep from being just terribly despairing? What kept you buoyed you up at this time?

CORRIE TEN BOOM: There are circumstances where you cannot do anything. It was only the Lord who has carried me through, and it’s good that I have experienced that. For I have always believed, now I know from experience, that Jesus’ light is stronger than the deepest darkness. And a child of God cannot go so deep; always deeper are the Everlasting Arms that carry you.

While Robertson, of course, asks what it was in Corrie that kept her sane and tender to the Lord, Corrie responds with good theology: it was not her but “only the Lord who carried me through.”

In the last year or so I was able to listen to the ‘Hiding Place’ again on audio book, and was struck by Corrie’s story.  During her time in prison, someone had smuggled in a copy of the book of John’s gospel, and it became a very precious resource for her during those dark times. Amazing how much this gospel account has impacted millions of lives over the last 200 years!

I mention that brief story because in the chapters that follow there is a lot of talk about abiding in Christ, and what it means to do so.  When I think about the story of Corrie ten Boom, I am inspired by our God’s faithfulness to those who abide in Him. No matter where we are, He is with us, and keeps us in His love.

John 15 is primarily a chapter dedicated to extolling to us the nature and virtues of our relationship with Jesus – especially the ongoing and intimate nature of that relationship. Jesus uses the word “abide” in this chapter seven times as part of a command to his disciples to stay in constant fellowship with Him once He leaves. This is only possible for those who are truly His disciples, as we shall see.

We have talked before about the nature of abiding. The Greek word for abide is “meno”, and as John MacArthur says, it “describes something that remains where it is, continues in a fixed state, or endures. In this context the word refers to maintaining an unbroken communion with Jesus Christ.”

15:1-2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.

OT Background

The first few verses in chapter 15 are startling, and ought to be counted as a warning, and also a great encouragement…depending on where you sit.

First, Jesus gives us a description of the Christian life – it’s an organic, gardening type of allegory (although it is hard to say precisely that it is “allegory” as some commentators have noted) – and He fills in the roles for us so we know who the characters are in this allegory. First, Jesus likens Himself unto a vine.  Not simply a weed which grows up in your garden and gets trimmed or yanked out each spring, but a “true” vine which is the pride and joy of the garden.

The Father is the vinedresser.  The duties of the vinedresser are to trim and prune the branches and keep the entire garden healthy and growing. Then, we see the purpose of the vinedresser described as one who takes branches away which do not bear fruit in order that they won’t keep the rest of the branches from growing.  But also, we read that the vinedresser “prunes” those branches that do bear fruit.

I think that its important to understand the context of this similitude/allegory as far as it is possible to see what the minds of the disciples might have been thinking at the time of hearing Jesus’ words.  In the OT there were many references to Israel being the vine planted by God (Ridderbos cites Ps. 80:9-12, 15; Hos. 11:1; Ex. 15; 19:10; Jer. 2:21).  Now, Jesus seems to be saying that He is the true vine. In other words – that word “true” is setting himself in contrast to something in the past – the vine of Israel. He is the “true” Israel of God (which Paul likens unto the church in Gal. 6:16), the true Vine.

Jesus is identifying Himself as the true church, the true Son, the spiritual seed of Abraham – and this makes sense as we continue to read on and learn that the church is connected to Him as His branches.  The bride (the church) and the bridegroom (Christ) are one flesh (so to speak). We are one body – the body of Christ. Without Him, we can do nothing.

The more one thinks on this, the more one wonders in amazement at the superiority of Jesus of Nazareth. This man who came to be not only the vine, but the “true” vine that would connect us to vibrant life everlasting.

Ridderbos summarizes this way, “The main thing, however, is that Jesus, by calling himself the true vine and, in immediate association therewith, his Father the planter and keeper of the vineyard, applies to himself this redemptive-historical description of the people of God. He thus becomes the one who represents or embodies the people.”

The Intimate/Immanent Work of the Father and our Culture

Before I get too far into each of the activities of the Father as vinedresser/gardener, let me just comment also about the nature of the Father in this allegory. The Father, as vinedresser, is intimately involved in the growth of His church. The vine and its branches represent the church of the Lord Jesus Christ – and it is Jesus who is the center of the church.  The church is joined to Him as a bride and bridegroom are joined together in marriage.

The vinedresser does not sit back and let the church go for hundreds of years, the vinedresser does not take only a passing interest in the vine, rather the vinedresser is deeply concerned that the vine and its branches bear fruit. He is involved in the sanctification process. The Father’s hands are not off the wheel. He is not so aloof on His mighty throne that He has disengaged from the world and its issues – nor has He abandoned His church!

We are told in our post-Christian culture that the myth of God is something we have intellectually grown out of by now (or we ought to have grown out of they say), and in His place we have a sort of neo-rationalism, which I hate to call intellectualism because it pales in comparison to the intellect of yesteryear (due to its embrace of absurdity and contradiction in almost every avenue of life). I also hesitate to call this post-Christian age one of scientific revolution or enlightenment because today’s scientists have so desecrated the scientific method that even the validity of “sense-perception” is thrown out the window for pseudo-science, which, in the end, is just another kind of twisted man-centered faith – it is faith in man and his abilities over all else.

No, culture is neo-rationalism based on man’s abilities and man’s preferences and moving outward from there. It’s an odd time to live in.  Men are really confused about the purpose of life. The most successful people in the world’s eyes cheat, steal (think Bernie Madoff), lie (think just about every politician) and commit suicide (think Hollywood elite) on a regular basis.

It is almost harder now to make an overall judgment about the culture because the culture is so fragmented (partly because of how people are educated – or informed – and the internet age). But I think that its safe to say that we life in a time which can best be described by the author of the book of Judges:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25, ESV)

We act as though we aren’t being watched – with no fear of God before our eyes. As if God has no influence or existence or say or involvement (pick your view).

But that’s not how Jesus describes the Father here in verses one and two. He says that God is actively involved in our lives. His hands are on the vine and He is pruning and clearing out the dead branches. Not only is the Father close to us, but as J.C. Ryle states, we are meant to learn first, from the these verses, that the union between Christ and believers is very close.”  All of our vitality as believers flows from Christ, and without Him we are spiritually dead.  Speaking of believers in this context, Ryle says, “They are what they are, and feel what they feel, and do what they do because they draw out of Jesus as continual supply of grace, help, and ability.

What are the implications of this?  Many. But let’s first examine what is meant in verse two by “pruning” and “taking away.”

He “Takes Away”

In verse six Jesus repeats this warning in more vivid terminology, but the long and the short of it is that the Father, as vinedresser, takes away some of the branches that are not truly abiding in Christ, the branch. These branches that are taken away are false disciples. They are the tares amongst the wheat. They are the ones who profess Christ but have never been born again. They are the ones who use Christ as a self-help guru who fixes them up each Sunday morning – they glean whatever they can from the church’s teaching and employ these ideas along with whatever worldly wisdom they accrue in a sort of modern day self-help syncretism that runs rampant in our culture.

We’ll get more into this when we come to verse six, but needless to say, if you think that you can hide in the church and live a life of “pretending”, know that God sees all things and knows all things. His eyes pierce your mind and heart and He will clear you away from the vine once and for all come judgment day.

If you find yourself now identifying with this false branch, I urge you to stop trusting in your façade and bow before God in repentance.  He will revitalize your life and renew your mind and heart. He is the only one who can truly satisfy all of your hearts desires – trust that He wants to give you abundant life – do it now!

He Prunes

It is not in our sinful nature to receive pruning from God and say “thank you God, I really needed that!” Pruning hurts. It is painful.  But it is also good for us.  I liken pruning unto God’s disciplining us out of love.

The author of Hebrews talks about this:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

nor be weary when reproved by him.

6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,

and chastises every son whom he receives.”

7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

12 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14 Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16 that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears. (Hebrews 12:3-17, ESV)

In this extended passage, I wanted us to notice that when we are pruned we have reason to rejoice. First, because God wants us to bear fruit.  The end goal is that we will walk more righteously and uprightly before Him and produce the fruit of a life that is completely conformed to the will of our Lord.

Secondly, let’s not forget that when we are pruned it reveals a beautiful truth: we are adopted! We have been added into the family of God – Paul describes this as being “grafted in” in Romans 11 using similar horticultural imagery. This is a blessing and privilege of the highest degree and when we are downcast we need to speak this truth to our souls.

Thirdly, God prunes us because He loves us. We just read that, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.”  So when we are pruned/disciplined, we need to bask in the love of God. We need to thank Him for His mighty hands upon us and trust in His infinite wisdom. He is fashioning you into something beautiful for His kingdom – don’t forget that truth.  Cling to that truth and praise God through the pain knowing that at the end of your life you will be made ready for heaven.

This vibrant truth is captured in John Piper’s most recent poetic publication ‘The Calvinist’ which describes a man whose life is difficult but yet founded upon the truth of God’s sovereignty. These are the final graphs of the poem:

See him now asleep.
Watch the helpless reap,
But no credit take,
Just as when awake.
 
See him nearing death.
Listen to his breath,
Through the ebbing pain:
Final whisper: “Gain!”
 

God prunes all those He loves, and it is a strangely beautiful thing to know His sovereign hand is upon you making you all that He wants you to be for your joy and His pleasure and glory.

15:3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.

One of the effects of the word of God is that it cleanses us mind and soul. I recently preached on Hebrews 10:1-18 and one of the main evidences that the author of that book points to for the inefficacy of the OT sacrifices is the lack of conscience cleansing.  Whereas the Holy Spirit, when He comes to abide in you, will certainly cleanse you from your sin, and give you a fresh start.

I love the story that R.C. Sproul tells about his daughter accepting Christ by virtue of an alter call.  He was attending a conference or sorts (I think in Cincinnati) and did not realize that his young daughter had made the trip there (possibly with Vesta, his wife) and was listening to another minister give an invitation after a message.  His daughter responded by coming forward and confessing Christ as her savior.  Dr. Sproul was really concerned that his daughter didn’t know what she was doing, and that she might be making a false confession that might make things more complicated and difficult later on once she understood the Bible more.  But when he got to talk with her afterwards, He asked her about the experience and why she did it and he immediately knew that her faith was genuine – one of the reasons why is due to the way she described how she felt.  She said “I feel clean daddy.”  That is what the Holy Spirit does my friends, He washes us by the power of regeneration – and that is primarily done through the preaching of His word.

Now when Jesus is saying that because of His word the disciples are “clean”, we ought to realize who is speaking – the Word of God incarnate! The statement amounts to a claim to deity, but also serves to remind us of the efficacy of His word. Jesus’ words have the power to cleanse us of our most vile sins.  One of the most beautiful passages that describes this is found in Paul’s letter to Titus:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, ESV)

Lastly, the power of Christ’s word is evident here. His word is the dividing line of all truth – He is truth, He is the Word incarnate! So when He speaks He automatically will parse people into groups: either they aren’t going to believe or they are. Either they will run from the light or they will run into the light.

Ridderbos says, “the special care that the Father bestows on the vine as planter and vinedresser and his making it the ‘true’ fine does not consist of an assortment of secondary actions that support the mission of his Son, but in this mission itself, in the dividing and purifying power of Jesus’ word of authority, which is the word of God himself (and is therefore introduced into the metaphor as God’s own action). What makes Jesus the true vine is that, as the one sent by God, he gathers a community, a fellowship of life, in which his word exerts a redeeming, life-creating, continually purifying, and dividing effect.”

Which leads Ridderbos to state:

…’you are already clean,’ which does not mean they have already attained a degree of spiritual or moral perfection, but that he has so deeply bound them to himself by his word that in virtue of that fellowship they are able and ready to do his word and to bear fruit. 

15:4-5 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

Singular Impotence

I think the main thrust of this passage is that in our own human power there is not the ability to maintain a vibrant spiritual life.  Jesus is the source of our spiritual life.  Without Him, it doesn’t matter how many lies you’ve told yourself, you’re still going to wither away and die.

Therefore, if you think you can do the Christian life alone, you’re mistaken.  If you think you believing in Christ was a one time fire insurance policy, you’re likely going to be very disappointed. If you feel like church is merely an add on to your own personal relationship, and not vital for continuing in the faith, then you’re going to deteriorate under the weight of your own bacteria infested spiritual life.

Beware: we cannot do anything apart from Christ. All good things flow from the Lord God who reigns on high.  This is a reason why our root is now in heaven – so that His blessings can flow from God’s throne to our lives. The chief amongst those blessings is fellowship with God through His Son.

Crazy Busy

I also think that there is a lot that can be said for “abiding” – and we will look more at this in the time to follow as we study the rest of this chapter. But one of the things that I have noticed about my own life, and the lives of many others living in our advanced western culture today, is that abiding is something that isn’t natural to us. We are so “crazy busy” (as Kevin DeYoung’s book states) that we have lost the art of what it means to abide. We are so wrapped up in the things of this world – be it parenting (taxi cab drivers for our kids), technology (our phones!) and the internet (social media) or just wasted time watching TV – that we don’t have time to abide…or so we think.

The truth is much different.  We fritter away our time doing things that really don’t move the needle too much.  Now I’m not advocating against technology or even TV after a long day, but all of this has its place, and its place for the Christian is behind time with the Lord.  “Constant prayer” is not the same as taking time to quieting be unplugged with God. Not that these things can happen all the time, but it needs to happen more than it does in my life, and I’m sure in yours as well. Jesus isn’t asking us to abide, He’s assuming we will – in fact He’s commanding us to do so. It’s a prerequisite.

The Warning of this Truth

The next thing that we notice from this passage is that there is a warning, but also some very comforting truth as a result. The warning is, of course, that if you are not abiding in Christ there is cause to examine yourself and check to see if you are truly in the faith.  Paul mentions this in 2 Corinthians:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 6 I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. 7 But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. (2 Corinthians 13:5-7, ESV)

Those who love the Lord will surely know they are His. And if you fail to abide in Him, if you hate spending time in prayer and in the word or with His children, then there is good reason to check yourself – are you in the faith? Do you love what He loves?  Or do you love the world more than you love Him…

The Endurance of the Root

Now, the inverse of this rather difficult truth is that if you are abiding in Christ – in the root – then you can have no possible reason for despair!  I love what Ryle says on this occasion, “Believers has no cause to despair of their own salvation, and to think they will never reach heaven. Let them consider that they are not left to themselves and their own strength. Their root is Christ, and all that there is in the root is for the benefit of the branches. Because He lives, they shall live also.”  Contrast that with those who are not in Christ, and you have absolute and total peril. You have condemnation that is certain waiting for them at the end of their hollow lives. “Worldly people have no cause to wonder at the continuance and perseverance of believers. Weak as they are in themselves, their Root is in heaven, and never dies” Ryle says.

How great is the hope of the one whose trust is in the Root of Jesse! How firm is the foundation upon which we stand. Our hope is eternal, and our root is strong.

The Reason for this Structure

Everything that God does has a reason. There is a method behind all that the great Designer of the universe puts into motion.

We don’t have to wonder what that reason is for abiding in Christ – for He tells us: to bear much fruit.  When you think about fruit, what comes to mind?  Derek Stone calls fruit “God’s candy”! So that naturally comes to mind for me. Fruit is symbolic of all that is sweet and good from the land. It is the candy of all growing things. Who doesn’t like fruit!?

And we know from studying the Bible that there is spiritual fruit as well. Paul describes this in Galatians 5:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5:22-26, ESV)

Now this fruit only comes through the power of the Holy Spirit – Christ’s indwelling presence among His chosen people, His branches. Therefore it is submission to the Spirit, and constant abiding in Christ that produces this fruit.

Interesting that the end result of this is glory to God.  Like all things that God creates, He calls the fruit of the Spirit “good” – you remember how God looked out over creation in Genesis 1 and said “it is good”? He is similarly pleased with His new creations in Christ – with you.

Ridderbos agrees:

‘For apart from me you can do nothing’ that is, nothing that corresponds to the new life that he bestows and the new commandment that he gives. For without this reciprocal remaining in him and him in them they will fall back on themselves, either in total unfruitfulness or lapsing into the wild growth that is no longer shaped by his word, into activism or idealism that is neither derived from nor directed to him.

You are a new creation in Christ, and He is tilling the land of your soul so that you will bear much fruit in this new land. He is the Vine, and you are the branches. Praise God for His diligent sovereign work of tilling the soil of our souls in order to produce the fruit of the Spirit within us. 

Abiding in Christ: Its meaning, importance, and paradox

As Kate and I were talking this evening about some of the major concepts that our class has tackled over the past few months, the topic of abiding came to the forefront of our discussion, and she suggested that I post a separate sort of stand-alone article simply on this principle for easy access down the road.  Enjoy!

 Abiding in Christ

There are several places in the Gospel of John where the word “abiding” is used to describe a believer’s right actions in/on his Christian journey. I’ve posted a little about this when we studied 6:55-56 and most recently 8:31-32, and during our most recently lesson I mentioned John 14:21 where our Lord says, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

There are 120 different times that this word is used throughout scripture. Perhaps the most familiar of all is found in John 15:1-11 where Christ delivers the last of his “I AM sayings” and tell us that it is our abiding in Him that gives us our live and vitality. Here’s what that passage says:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. [2] Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [3] Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. [4] Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. [5] I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. [6] If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. [7] If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. [8] By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. [9] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. [10] If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. [11] These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

Defining our Terms

Before we go much further, let’s ask what exactly this word “abide” means. The word “abide” is “meno” in the Greek and can mean to sojourn or tarry in a place, to be kept continually, to continue to be present, to endure, and when talking about it in relation to a state a condition of a person it can mean to “remain as one” and “not become different.”

To abide in Christ and have Him abide in us is normally meant that we are continually relying on Christ for our vitality.  The ESV Study notes say, “abide in me means to continue in a daily, personal relationship with Jesus, characterized by trust, prayer, obedience, and joy.”

Sinclair Ferguson says, “Abiding in Christ means allowing His Word to fill our minds, direct our wills, and transform our affections.”

The Paradox of Abiding

The more one studies abiding, and the kind of abiding Christians are called to do, the more one realizes (I think) that there are two sorts of abiding that occur in our walk with Christ.

The first kind of abiding is a synergistic work. That is to say, it is something we work with God in accomplishing. Abiding requires us reading the Word of God, and daily submitting our lives to His authority. It requires us being in prayer, and asking for God to work through our lives, and work on us – to conform us to the image of Christ. It’s a constant seeking of God’s face (1 Chron. 16:11). This idea is articulated in the Latin phrase “coram Deo” which R.C. Sproul defines in the following way: “This phrase literally refers to something that takes place in the presence of, or before the face of, God. To live coram Deo is to live one’s entire life in the presence of God, under the authority of God, to the glory of God.”

The second part of abiding, is the part that is monergistic, that is to say that it is God’s work and not ours. This kind of abiding is the kind that the Holy Spirit does in our lives after we are born again. Our abiding is done out of a motivation and love for Christ’s abiding in us and saving us.  His abiding in us causes us to want to abide in Him – to spend time in His word, to spend time in prayer. So in a sense we are always abiding in Him because He is in us. But in another sort of lower sense, there is a call here for us to “abide” in Christ – and that means seeking Him and resting in Him.

Because we are both “seeking” and “resting” at the same time, I call this “the paradox of abiding.” A paradox is defined as two things that seem on the surface to be naturally opposed or in contradiction to one another, but only through a closer look do we find that they are not opposed to each other, but are simply different ways of expressing a larger truth or relationship – in this case, our relationship with Christ and His work of sanctification within us. We rest in Him because we are secure in the promises He offers and we are secure in our salvation, but we seek Him and seek to abide in Him because we love Him and want to know Him more.

Here is how Jerry Bridges articulates this concept of abiding:

In John 15:4-5, Jesus made it clear that the divine source of life and power comes through abiding in him. How does one abide?

Most often we think of activities such as studying our Bible and praying as abiding in Christ…But these activities do not constitute abiding in Christ; rather, they belong in a subject we called communion with Christ. What then does it mean to abide in Christ? It is reliance on Him for His life and His power. By faith we renounce any confidence in our own wisdom, willpower, and moral strength and rely completely on him to supply the spiritual wisdom and power we need. This does not mean we sit back and just “turn it all over Him” to live His life through us; rather, we rely on him to enable us. So we can say that our salvation is by faith and our transformation is also by faith. But this does not mean that the object of our faith is the same in both cases…in salvation, we are passive except to believe. In transformation, we are active as we seek to pursue holiness in relying on the Holy Spirit to apply the power of Christ to our hearts and enable us to do his will.

And so abiding is both resting in Christ, and seeking the face of God in our daily walk. It is completely relying on the Lord for our every need, and staying in constant and continual touch with Him. It is diving into His Word, and leaning on the promises we find therein. It is faithfully walking the narrow path of a Christian soldier as we march toward our eternal home.

Study Notes 11-18-12

We continue our study of John’s Gospel and will be looking at some of our Lord’s greatest words (if one can possibly peal off greatness from greatness) as it pertains to freedom, and our natural state of slavery to sin and darkness.

The Lord has freed us from the galleys of slavery and to sin and self-centeredness and brought us into the glorious light of the knowledge of His gospel.  God be praised!  Let’s start into the lesson…

John 8:31-36 – Freedom from Sin

8:31-32 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, [32] and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

First I want to go back and examine how verse 30 and verse 31 interact with each other, because many good commentators have pointed out that both verses in many of our English versions use the word “believe” to describe the people’s reaction here.

Some say there is some difference between the meanings used, Boice, for instance says that the first is meant to be saving faith and the latter to mean intellectual ascent.  But they both utilize the same Greek word “pisteuō”, so I’m not entirely convinced of that.  What I am convinced of is that those who were listening to Jesus may have believed what He was saying mentally, but obviously they didn’t stand the discipleship test, which we’ll see later on.

Abiding in the Word

The second thing we note here is the nature of a true Christian.  The true Christian “abides” in the word of Christ.

In our study of John 6:55-56 we talked about the nature of abiding.  Those verses say, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Here is what I noted about what it meant to “abide”:

The word “abide” is “meno” in the Greek and can mean to sojourn or tarry in a place, to be kept continually, to continue to be present, to endure, and when talking about it in relation to a state a condition of a person it can mean to “remain as one” and “not become different.”

To abide in Christ and have Him abide in us is normally meant that we are continually relying on Christ for our vitality.  I like what the ESV Study notes say, “abide in me means to continue in a daily, personal relationship with Jesus, characterized by trust, prayer, obedience, and joy.”

What Christ is saying, in affect, is that a true Christian will have the desire to spend time listening, reading, and meditating on His word.  A true Christian will be obeying His word as well.  These are fruits of a true Christ-follower.  Truly it is a privilege to know something of the eternal God, and that we should know this truth in even a small way is in itself part of our reward as well as our fruit of the relationship we gain by acquaintance with Jesus.  Calvin enumerates upon this privilege as only Calvin can:

Wherefore, whatever progress any of us have made in the Gospel, let him know that he needs new additions. This is the reward which Christ bestows on their perseverance, that he admits them to greater familiarity with him; though in this way he does nothing more than add another gift to the former, so that no man ought to think that he is entitled to any reward. For it is he who impresses his word on our hearts by his Spirit, and it is he who daily chases away from our minds the clouds of ignorance which obscure the brightness of the Gospel. In order that the truth may be fully revealed to us, we ought sincerely and earnestly to endeavor to attain it. It is the same unvarying truth which Christ teaches his followers from the beginning to the end, but on those who were at first enlightened by him, as it were with small sparks, he at length pours a full light. Thus believers, until they have been fully confirmed, are in some measure ignorant of what they know; and yet it is not so small or obscure a knowledge of faith as not to be efficacious for salvation.

Freedom from Sin

The third thing we take from the passage is the result of abiding is learning the truth, and by learning that truth we will experience a great reality: freedom.  What kind of freedom could He mean?  I believe that Christ is talking about freedom from sin, freedom from guilt, freedom from the slavery to the prince of this world – what Calvin calls “an invaluable blessing.”  It is these points Jesus goes on to labor in his debate with the Pharisees.

What does true freedom looks like? Freedom looks like someone who has the fruit of the Spirit.  And, not coincidently, those who have the fruit of the Spirit are also abiding in the Word of God – written by that same Spirit.

Perhaps there is no better expositing of this truth than Paul’s writing in Romans 6.  The entire chapter is about being free from sin, and being a slave to righteousness.  The dichotomy between the two is labored by Paul because so many people think that they are basically good people who happen to sin a little here and there.

Amazing to think that what was so important for Paul to intensively labor in Romans 6, is actually more pertinent today than ever before.

Perhaps the most pertinent part of Romans 6 as it applies to this particular verse, is the section between verses 6 and 11:

[6] We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. [7] For one who has died has been set free from sin. [8] Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. [9] We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. [10] For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. [11] So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The main thrust of this part of the passage is that we were formally slaves to sin, but because of Christ’s work we have been set free from sin.  It is the gospel that has delivered us from our sin. That is the freedom Christ is talking about here in verse 32.  He’s saying that because He was going to conquer death, death would no longer have dominion over us. Sin’s end is death, and so sin and its result (death) would no longer have power over anyone who believes upon Christ. Calvin agrees, saying that the kind of liberty that’s being described here is “that which sets us free from the tyranny of Satan, sin, and death.”

Barnes says, “The service of God is freedom from degrading vices and carnal propensities; from the slavery of passion and inordinate desires. It is a cheerful and delightful surrender of ourselves to Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.”

When we think about the practical way this has revolutionized our lives, its unthinkable to go back to living any other way. Calvin says, “All men feel and acknowledge that slavery is a very wretched state; and since the gospel delivers us from it, it follows that we derive from the gospel the treasure of a blessed life.”  To this comment I can only add “amen!”

Born Free?

I’m always amazed at how many Christians insist on stating that they “freely” chose Christ because they were born with “free will.”  But as R.C. Sproul reminds us, we need to be cautious when we talk about free will so that we know exactly what it is we’re saying.

Certainly God gives us the freedom of choice to make decisions.  We aren’t robots, and we aren’t puppets.  But there are some things that even in our natural freedom we are not free to do.  One of those things is not sinning.  When we are born into this world, we are not free not to sin.  In other words, we are going to sin because it is who we are, and we are enslaved to it.  We will continue in this sin until Christ sets us free from it.

Calvin comments, “It is astonishing that men are not convinced by their own experience, so that, laying aside their pride, they may learn to be humble. And it is a very frequent occurrence in the present day, that, the greater the load of vices by which a man is weighed down, the more fiercely does he utter unmeaning words in extolling free-will.”

This is what irked the Pharisees.  They were saying, “Hey Jesus, we’re not slaves to anyone!  We make our own decisions.  We live our own lives.  No one rules over us, or our families!” But they were wrong in saying this, and people today are wrong in thinking that mankind is free to do whatever they’d like – we aren’t free to be holy and perfect because we’re incapable of it in our natural state.

When you think about how this plays out, it’s really worth contemplating and meditating on deeply because it shows the state of our old self and where we were headed apart from Christ.  For when we were slaves to sin, not only were we tethered to that form of life that is most odious to Christ, but we are tethered to the result of that life, namely death. When Christ unchains us from our slavery to sin, He also unchains us from the pangs of death – death could not rule over him (Acts 2), and we also have victory over death due to His death and resurrection (Rom. 6).

A.W. Pink laments at how fallen we are in our natural state, and yet how unwilling we are to realize this fact:

The condition of the natural man is far, far worse than he imagines, and far worse than the average preacher and Sunday school teacher supposes. Man is a fallen creature, totally depraved, with no soundness in him from the sole of his foot even unto the head (Isa. 1:6). He is completely under the dominion of sin (John 8:34), a bond-slave to divers lusts (Titus 3:3), so that he “cannot cease from sin” (2 Pet. 2:14). Moreover, the natural man is thoroughly under the dominion of it. He is taken captive by the Devil at his will (2 Tim. 2:26). He walks according to the Prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience (Eph. 2:2). He fulfills the lusts of his father, the Devil (John 8:44). He is completely dominated by Satan’s power (Col. 1:13). And from this thraldom nothing but the truth of God can deliver.

When I first read Pink’s comments it struck me to the bone. His first sentence was aimed at me – the teacher. Am I really honest with how ugly I was before Christ? That is a question that not many men or women truly meditate on for much more than a passing thought – perhaps before taking the Lord’s Super. But what Pink is calling us to realize is our state of depravity and darkness without Jesus.

Calvin says this, “For so long as we are governed by our sense and by our natural disposition, we are in bondage to sin; but when the Lord regenerates us by his Spirit, he likewise makes us free, so that, loosed from the snares of Satan, we willingly obey righteousness. But regeneration proceeds from faith, and hence it is evident that freedom proceeds from the gospel.”

Barnes adds, “There is need of the gospel. That only can make men free, calm, collected, meek, and lovers of truth; and as every man is by nature the servant of sin, he should without delay seek an interest in that gospel which can alone make him free.”

In the midst of our celebration of this freedom, we pause and wonder, “now wait a minute, how is it that I still continue to sin?”  Well, as Paul works this matter of slavery out in Romans 6, we are glad he continued to write because when we get to Romans 7 we learn that he faced that same dilemma – namely that he still continued to battle sin.  Despite the freedom not to sin that Christ has given us, Paul says that we still sin due to the nature of the flesh. But I don’t want to get too deep into that here.  The main point we need to see is the dichotomy between one who is a slave to sin, and one who is not, and that we have been made free men and women by the power and work of Christ.

8:33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”

Ironically, the very shackles that bound these Pharisees in their sin were the same chains causing them to claim they weren’t enslaved to anyone.  In their blindness they claimed they weren’t blind.  In their darkness they claimed to be enlightened.  These were truly men who were missing the point.

Oddly enough (and Calvin picks up on this point as well) it isn’t as though these people have never been enslaved physically to anyway…in point of fact, they were currently under a type of mild slavery/tyranny by the Romans at this very time in history – something I will address shortly. Warren Wiersbe collects these thoughts together succinctly:

Their claim that Abraham’s descendants had never been in bondage was certainly a false one that was refuted by the very record in the Old Testament Scriptures. The Jews had been enslaved by seven mighty nations, as recorded in the book of Judges. The ten northern tribes had been carried away captive by Assyria, and the two southern tribes had gone into seventy years of captivity in Babylon. And at that very hour, the Jews were under the iron heel of Rome! How difficult it is for proud religious people to admit their failings and their needs!

Pink cites all of the above that Wiersbe mentions, and then says, “It was therefore the height of absurdity and a manifest departure from the truth for them to affirm that the seed of Abraham had never been in bondage. Yet no more untenable and erroneous was this than the assertions of present-day errorists who prate so loudly of the freedom of the natural man, and who so hotly deny that his will is enslaved by sin.”

8:34-36 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. [35] The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. [36] So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Jesus uses the emphatic phrase “truly, truly” to get our attention.  He is saying to us “pay attention to this.”

Bondage to our Self-Centeredness

D.A. Carson explores the intent of what Christ is saying, “For Jesus, then, the ultimate bondage is not enslavement to a political or economic system, but vicious slavery to moral failure, to rebellion against the God who had made us. The despotic master is not Caesar, but shameful self-centeredness, an evil and enslaving devotion to created things at the expense of worship of the Creator.”

In other words, we are so self-centered and self-serving that our own sin and moral failures are the chief problems that need to be dealt with in life.

I think this is so important because the context in which Jesus is saying this is under the oppression of the Roman regime. The Jewish people had found their freedoms limited, and their liberties cut off. We also are going through a time in America where our own liberties are in question. We see the despotic nature of our government, which is becoming ever more tyrannical and hostile to Christian beliefs and values, and we wonder (rightly) if our freedoms will all be gone within a generation.

The generation of men and women Christ was addressing were far worse off than we are today, yet, like them, we often find ourselves distracted from solving life’s most important challenges, and that is what Christ came to solve.  The real problem is with ourselves, not our government. There’s only so much you can do about government – believe me, I’ve been fighting that battle for a while now.  Jesus isn’t saying that freedom from political tyranny isn’t important, what He is saying is that there’s something even more important.  When the Son of God came to the earth, He came to address life’s biggest problems, life’s biggest challenges. He came to free us from our bondage to sin.

That’s why we gather on Sunday mornings, that’s why we “abide” in the word of God, that’s why we pray and devote ourselves to growth in Christ. Because what we are doing today and on these other days, is addressing the real problems in life – life’s most consequential and difficult challenges.

The Power of the Son

The second thing that Jesus says in this passage is that as the Son of God He has unique privileges and power. He has the ability to set them free, because He has full reign over the house of God.  Calvin comments, “By these words he means that the right of freedom belongs to himself alone, and that all others, being born slaves, cannot be delivered by his grace.  For what he possesses as his own by nature he imparts to us by adoption, when we are engrafted by faith into his body, and become his members.”

“…the Gospel is the instrument by which we obtain our freedom” – Calvin

One of the main reasons I like to bring up the issue of the way we view “free will” is because in our “freedom” we come to rely too heavily on our flesh for the support of our souls. Here is what I mean by that: when we are going through the turmoil that this life brings us, it is natural (because of the flesh) to wonder at the purpose of life, and even whether our souls are truly saved. We wonder at God and ask Him in our difficulties whether He’s really there or not.  We wonder at Him and ask if we are truly saved or not.

Well one of the great things we hear Jesus saying in this passage is that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” In other words, He is the one with the power over sin and death, and not your “free will” or your “fleshly power.”  To steal a recent campaign theme, “you didn’t build this” – no indeed: Christ built this!

Carson says this, “Jesus not only enjoys inalienable rights as the unique Son of God, but exercises full authority, vested in him by the Father (3:35), to liberate slaves. Those who Jesus liberates from the tyranny of sin are really (ontos) free.”

Those who build their house upon this Rock will be able to stand firm in the storm because they know they weren’t the craftsmen, they weren’t the guarantee of the foundation’s sturdiness.  Christ Himself is the cornerstone and the Master Builder, and when life’s trials come, you can say with confidence “I will survive this, and either by life or death I will be with Christ, for He is my firm foundation, and in His work I can trust.”

Carson makes the great point that once free, we have been set free for a purpose:

True freedom is not the liberty to do anything we please, but the liberty to do what we ought; and it is genuine liberty because doing what we ought now pleases us.

What an amazing truth he’s hit on here. Christ knows that those who are set free are going to want to please Christ – before we simply wanted to please ourselves, now we have a desire and are at liberty to please the Lover of our Souls.

Dear friends: step away from the reliance on your own work, and rest upon the great and mighty work of Jesus Christ – the Son who has set you free!

 

Study Notes 8-26-12: John 6:55-66

Here are the study notes for John 6:55-66

6:55-56 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. [56] Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

The word “abide” is “meno” in the Greek and can mean to sojourn or tarry in a place, to be kept continually, to continue to be present, to endure, and when talking about it in relation to a state a condition of a person it can mean to “remain as one” and “not become different.”

To abide in Christ and have Him abide in us is normally meant that we are continually relying on Christ for our vitality.  I like what the ESV Study notes say, “abide in me means to continue in a daily, personal relationship with Jesus, characterized by trust, prayer, obedience, and joy.”

I think that in relation to verse 55 (and all the other surrounding verses), verse 56 is saying that abiding in Christ is continually eating of the “true” food and drink that He has to offer.  This means that He wants us to not simply seek His face on Sunday mornings, but rather reflects His desire to have our hearts continually seeking after Him as we would for food.  We look for food at least three times a day (plus tea time if you’re English!) because we’re driven to it by hunger.  The same ought to be true in our spiritual lives. “Don’t starve yourself!” Jesus is saying.

This notion of “abiding” is familiar to those of us who have closely studied the Bible for a number of years now and have heard Jesus say in John 15 that He is the vine and we are the branches.  In that passage – the last of His “I Am” sayings – He says that it is our abiding in Him that gives us life as well.  Here’s what John 15:1-11 says:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. [2] Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [3] Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. [4] Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. [5] I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. [6] If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. [7] If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. [8] By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. [9] As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. [10] If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. [11] These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

I think it’s worth noting that there are 120 different times that this word is used throughout scripture.  It’s an important concept, one that we will keep coming back to.  There are two sort of nuances to abiding, I think.

The first is that abiding is a synergistic work.  That is to say, it is something we work with God in accomplishing.  Abiding requires us reading the Word of God, and daily submitting our lives to His authority.  It requires us being in prayer, and asking for God to work through our lives, and work on us.  It’s a constant seeking of God’s face (1 Chron. 16:11).  This idea is articulated in the latin phrase “Coram Deo” which means to live in the face of God – to live with the mindset that we are continually dwelling in His presence.   Which leads to the second part of this…

The second part of abiding, is the part that is monergistic, that is to say that it is God’s work and not ours.  This kind of abiding is the kind that the Holy Spirit does in our lives once we are born again.  Our abiding is done out of a motivation and love for Christ’s abiding in us and saving us.  His abiding in us causes us to want to abide in Him – to spend time in His word, to spend time in prayer.  So in a sense we are always abiding in Him because He is in us.  But in another sort of lower sense, there is a call here for us to “abide” in Christ – and that means to seeking Him and resting in Him.

This is what we call a “paradox” because we are both seeking and resting at the same time.  These things seem to be naturally opposed to each other on the surface, but only through a closer look do we find that they are not opposed to each other, but are simply different ways of expressing our relationship with Christ, and His work of sanctification within us.  We rest in Him because we are secure in the promises He offers and we are secure in our salvation, but we seek Him and seek to abide in Him because we love Him and want to know Him more.

6:57-59 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. [58] This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” [59] Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.

I agree with Sproul who says that this is a lot like His saying to the Samaritan Woman at the well that He is the “living water” and that all who thirst should come to Him and receive water so that they may never thirst again.

The thing I think we need to particularly note is the life-giving power of Jesus.  It is almost too easy to simply call it “life giving power” because there is a whole other sort of power there.  And what I mean by that is that it is one thing to bring people to life who have died, and to breathe life into them, and to heal them as Christ had done – these are amazing, breathtaking things to be sure – but it is a whole separate thing to say that Christ has the power of life within Him.

So what I am getting at here, perhaps clumsily, is that Christ also has the power to bring life out of nothing.  Where there was nothing before, He speaks and BOOM there’s life.  He thinks and it is so.  He has the power of being in Himself.  In order to understand this we almost need to reach a whole other level of thinking on the person of Christ.  He’s so powerful, so glorious and has such authority that His words command the planets and their orbits.  The sea bows to His wishes, science works at His pleasure, and microbiology orders itself according to His good pleasure!

So again, He chooses these statements of power to punctuate His teaching on the nature of salvation.  The person who holds worlds in His hands and knows the every need of BILLIONS of people, is also the God who is sovereign over salvation.

He has now claimed to have come down from heaven, to be the I AM – the very Deity Himself – and He has offered up eternal life to whomever will come to Him.  In all of this He has preached His sovereignty (vs. 37 and 44 in particular), and His compassion.

Now, it is time for the disciples to digest the food Christ has given them, and at first they find it hard food to swallow…

6:60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”

Now there are two (and perhaps three) kinds of hard sayings, as R.C. Sproul likes to remind us.  The first is the kind of hard saying that is difficult to understand.  It is hard because it is truly a complex matter, which is prone to giving us a 3 aspirin headache!  The second kind of “hard saying” is the kind that we hear and don’t like to accept.  It is hard because we don’t care for it and would rather not believe in its truthfulness.

Steve Lawson says that this series of sayings are “not hard to understand, but hard to swallow.”

But I think that these sayings are a combination of both types of “hard” sayings.  It is both unacceptable to these men because of their pride, and it is difficult to understand for even the apostles because, though they perhaps want to understand it and believe it, they cannot without the aid of Christ (or the Holy Spirit).

We have to take note of the same thing and not to approach the Bible with arrogance or presuppositions.  The Bible is definitely definitive; it’s definitely clear; it’s definitely perspicuitous. But at the same time we have to be conscious not to jump to conclusions that aren’t there.  We shouldn’t read something into the text that isn’t there – or try to avoid the text simply because its saying something we find offensive.

In one way this text is very comforting because we see that the disciples of Jesus early on had difficulty with some of the things he was saying. On the other hand it’s challenging to us because we know that having the Holy Spirit we ought to be able to understand these texts – at least that’s what we tell ourselves. But this is why the Bible is an inexhaustible resource that we will never fully penetrate no matter how many years we live and how long we spend in its’ pages.

Just yesterday I was talking with a pastor who said he’s been reading the Bible every day for over 40 years and was still finding things in it that he had never seen before.  He told me that he says to himself “was that there the whole time?!”

But I do want to use this as an opportunity to talk about the perspicuity of scripture, and the private interpretation of scripture.  Perspicuity, in a nutshell, means that something is clear and able to be understood by someone who doesn’t have a doctorate degree in theology.  It means that you and me can read Scripture and understand clearly what it says without someone (i.e. a priest) from the church explaining the plain meaning of the text.  This isn’t saying that we don’t all benefit from the wisdom of the church and her teachers, but is simply to say that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the sentences, paragraphs, and general meaning of words in this book.

Private interpretation is similar to perspicuity and basically means that an individual can read the Bible and understand it clearly enough (because it is perspicuitous) to be responsible for that understanding before God.

This is extremely important because with the proliferation of Bibles there is also the proliferation of wrong opinions about what those Bibles say.  This was the very thing that Martin Luther and the church was concerned about before his translation project began.  If the Bible were to get into the hands of the masses, how would they be able to understand it, and then have a great enough grasp of it to correctly conform their lives to its instructions?  Well Luther knew the danger in this, but said that it was worth the danger because of the number of souls that would be won with the opening up of Scripture.  The church as guardian of Scripture had failed miserably.  The situation really couldn’t get any worse!  But Luther also knew and understood that this scripture was perspicuitous and therefore, with the help of the Spirit and of wise church leaders, believers could read scripture and understand correctly what it said – even if there were mysteries within its pages that they found “hard”, as these disciples found in the verse we’ve just examined.

6:61-62 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? [62] Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

Of course the disciples wouldn’t have taken offense to Him ascending into heaven – they would have rejoiced at that.  So Christ is offering them a comparison to give them perspective.  He’s saying that “both A and B doctrines are true, and everything I say is true, therefore why are you offended at one versus the other?”

We need to realize that all of scripture is God’s truth.  It is all relevant, it is all true.  Just because one thing appears more difficult of offensive than another doesn’t mean its any less God’s word.

I can’t think of a better verse (except maybe 1 Tim. 3:16) to show us that all doctrine in scripture is God’s doctrine.  All truth is God’s truth!

Christ wants to elevate our perspective.  When He speaks, the matter is done.  There is no appealing for an easier doctrine or an easier truth.  We can’t go to God and say “please give me something easier to understand or believe in, because this really isn’t very comfortable.”  We need to see Jesus’ words through the lens of His authority, and bow before them in unquestioned allegiance to His truth.

So while we talk about perspicuity, we also need to understand that just because scripture is clear and readable doesn’t mean its not mysterious/difficult.  And that is what Christ addresses next…

6:63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

The “flesh” He’s referring to here is not His flesh that has been the topic of the last several verses, but rather the flesh of humanity.  As Sproul points out, this is a theme that runs through most of Scripture, and one that Paul especially expounds upon (Romans 7 comes to mind).  The Bible sees our “flesh” as our mind, will and emotions prior to the Holy Spirit’s breathing new life into us, which Jesus calls being “born again.”

What He is essentially saying here is that in the flesh they will not be able to understand what He is saying because He is saying something spiritually related.  Paul explains:

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.  And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2:12-14)

6:64-65 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) [65] And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

As Sproul says, “there’s that doctrine of predestination again.”  I laughed when I read that because it is this doctrine that offends so many immature Christians, and yet I was once one of them.  Scripture exhorts us to strive toward greater understanding of even the most difficult doctrines.  In Hebrews we read:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. [12] For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, [13] for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. [14] But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. [6:1] Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, [2] and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. [3] And this we will do if God permits. (Hebrews 5:11-6:3)

There’s also a direct tie-in between verses 63-65 – they build on each other.  Jesus is saying that you can’t come to me (65) because you do not believe (64) and in order to believe you need the help of the Spirit (63), because in your own flesh you can’t understand these mysteries – this bread of life isn’t palatable to you (66).

This is why we say that regeneration precedes faith.  Before we can see the kingdom of God we must be born again (chapter 3).  Before we can believe on Christ (faith – 64), we must first be born again, otherwise we’ll simply walk away from Him and find something else that is more palatable to our sin natures (66).

The Case for ‘Limited Atonement’

It wasn’t until some time after I had first taught through this passage that I realized the significance of John’s editorial comment in verse 64. John says, “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe.” It stands to reason that if Jesus knew from the beginning who would not believe, then He certainly knew from the beginning who would believe.

We have already seen that, as Morris says, “The truths of which Jesus has been speaking are accessible only to faith…only for those in whom God works come to Christ.” But interestingly enough John says that Jesus knew from the beginning about who would come to him and who would not. Carson points out that this could be either from the beginning of His ministry, or from the beginning of all time (i.e. John 1:1). Regardless, the fact remains that John’s assertion has natural consequences, namely that Jesus knew for whom He was dying, and those who would not come to Him. He could know this because He was divine, and therefore omniscient. It is a mysterious thing that He would not know certain things (like the time of his return), and yet appear to know something eternally set in stone (Eph. 1:4-5) – like who would come to faith in Him and who would not.

Nevertheless, it is not for us to pry into the reasons as to why Christ knew some things and not others, but one thing He certainly did seem to know is exactly who would not believe in Him, and therefore who would come to believe in Him. This reality is usually known as the doctrine of Limited Atonement, or ‘Definite Atonement’.  It has long been a stumbling block to those of a more Arminian persuasion, and even some in my own Baptist tradition have called themselves “4-point Calvinists” on the basis of eschewing this doctrine.

Yet here is the truth of God’s Word before us, in the context of highly predestinarian language, which has been set in the midst of a discussion on the sovereignty of God and His Christ in the Salvation of mankind. I don’t, therefore, think it’s a stretch to see this verse as affirming the doctrine that Christ came into the world with specific people in mind – His elect.

6:66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.

What was the result of Christ’s preaching the doctrine of the atonement, and salvation, and predestination?  The result was that people couldn’t take it anymore.  They didn’t like what this Jesus was saying, and they didn’t want to submit their lives to someone who wouldn’t simply focus on their physical needs.  These people were sinners who sought after their own desire and needs, and didn’t realize their greatest need wasn’t physical but spiritual.

The same thing will happen to us when we teach and preach hard truths.  It’s easy to be turned off by someone who teaches the doctrine of predestination, isn’t it?  We have to confront ourselves with the question: Am I following Christ for all the physical blessings He brings me in this life, or am I following Him because I love Him for what He’s done for me here and for eternity to come?  Am I following a Jesus that doesn’t exist?  Am I following someone who says, “come to me all who are weary”, but never says, “you can’t come to me unless you are drawn”? OR, am I following a Jesus who is so radical, so offensive, and so odious to my sinful self that if I had been there I would likely have “turned back” as well?

I think that this verse tells us a great deal about the nature of the entire discourse.  We may be troubled when we read verse 44 or 37 telling us that no one can come to the Father unless He draws them.  We may not fully understand what Christ means by eating of His flesh.  We might not exactly know what He means by calling Himself the “bread of life” and so on.  But we must not be like these men who gave up and walked away.  If we are true Disciples of Christ we will stand by Him and work to learn more from Him.  We must sit at His knees and be taught of God.

Let us humbly commit to following Christ no matter how difficult these saying may be, and no matter how our minds and hearts may not want to accept them.  Let us wrestle with God as Jacob did, and let us claim the promise of God that He will help us if we would only ask.  James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”