Jesus Prays for Unity – John 17

Below are my notes on John 17:20-23, its really part 1 of a two part series on how Jesus wraps up his prayer to the Father.  I hope you enjoy!

PJW

17:20-23 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, [21] that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. [22] The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, [23] I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

Background on verses 20-23, and 24-26

In this section Lord turns his attention more generally to the universal church and all the elect whom He came to save. Of course many of the things He’s said up until this point could (and do in many ways) apply to believers who came after these 11 standing around Him, but now He makes this clear.

William Hendricksen puts it well:

…engraved upon the breastplate of the great Highpriest are the names not only of those chosen out of the tribes of Israel but also of those drawn from the world of heathendom.  In addition to the sheep that are led out of the fold of the Jews there are also “other sheep” (10:16). All must become one flock, with one shepherd (17:21).

Also, a note about verse 22 which states that Jesus has given the disciples “glory” – Carson rightly points out that this is likely addressed to not simply the 11, but to all the elect, the entire church, given the nature and context of where it is mentioned.  This is how Carson describes what this “glory” is, “Glory commonly refers to the manifestation of God’s character or person in a revelatory context; Jesus has mediated the glory of God, personally to his first followers and through them to those who believe on account of their message.”

A note about verse 23 which states “perfectly one” – this reminds me of the call to be holy just as Jesus is holy. He is calling us toward perfection and yet this is not something we achieve in this lifetime.  This perfection of unity with God is in one sense accomplished in fact at the cross, but the reality of this will not yet be realized fully until Jesus comes back.  In this way we ought to understand the call for holiness the same way we see Jesus petitioning the Father for perfect unity – eschatologically.  We need to see these things as a comfort that since Jesus has prayed for it, therefore it will happen. So there is still an element of “not yet” here.

The entire section is summed up well by D.A. Carson’s commentary on verse 23:

The unity of the disciples, as it approaches the perfection that is its goal, serves not only to convince many in the world that Christ is indeed the supreme locus of divine revelation as Christians claim (that you sent me), but that Christians themselves have been caught up into the love of the Father for the Son, secure and content and fulfilled because loved by the Almighty himself (cf. Eph. 3:17b-19), with the very same love he reserves for his Son. It is hard to imagine a more compelling evangelic appeal.

Two Main Themes

There are really two main themes in this section (verses 20-26), the first is unity of believers with God and with each other, and the second is the importance and prerequisite assumption that we know God.  This knowing of God is enunciated by our Lord in greater detail as He concludes the prayer in vs. 24-26; therefore let me first address this idea of unity.

Unity with God and Each Other

Jesus prays to the Father that “they also may be in us” and the goal is “that the world may believe that you sent me.”  In other words, it is unity with Christ and the outflowing of a changed heart and life (actions, words, deeds) that will testify to the world that Jesus has effectively joined us to Himself.

J.C. Ryle says, “The meaning of this sentence I take to be, ‘I pray that both these my disciples, and those who hereafter shall become my disciples, may all be of one mind, one doctrine, one opinion, one heart, and one practice, closely united and joined together , even as Thou, Father, and I are of one mind and one will, in consequence of that ineffable union whereby Thou art in Me and I in Thee.’”

What this means is that when you become a Christian you are going to change – it’s inevitable.  You will bear fruit, and you will begin to love God and others more and more until the day Christ returns, or you die and meet Him in heaven. These changes are occurring across the body of Christ, so that He is working universally to conform His bride to how she ought to be.  We who believe are all united in the fact especially that God is working within us and we are united by that Spirit who dwells within us.

And so we see that in the deepest prayer we have ever been privileged to encounter in Scripture, Jesus prays for fundamental things having to do with the Christian life: knowledge of God, and unity with God as His body/His church. The glory of this cannot be missed. How can it be that God of very God would be praying that we – human beings – be ushered into an intimate relationship with Him?   Yet that is exactly what we see here is it not?

If we look at the testimony of the rest of the NT authors it seems that they also saw the importance of unity with God and with others. Here are just a few references:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Phil. 2:2)

 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12)

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 3:8)

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

This list could go on and on.  There were so many references that I couldn’t write them all down or go through each one, suffice it to say that in the NT unity of the body of Christ is very important.  This is something Christ petitioned the Father for, and something we ought to always keep in mind.

I think its important to note that Jesus’ prayer was/has been/is being realized, and this is happening is ways, but lets examine at least two key ways…

Christ achieved this unity at the cross and sealed it at the Resurrection

In Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn about what Christ achieved for us in terms of us being united to Christ:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

So the reality of our unity with Christ has been realized, yet we await a day when Christ comes back and we see that reality, that unity with our eyes.  We live in what Tom Schreiner calls “the awkward era” of the already/not yet.  We are unified with Christ and have all those promises, yet we won’t realize all of them until the day He returns and consummates His kingdom.

We are unified through the Spirit

Another reason we have unity with God and with the body of the church is due to the fact that the Spirit has come and inaugurated this new age.  Have you ever thought of that?  It is the Spirit of God that birthed us into the kingdom, and brought us into the family of God.  We read about this in Romans 8:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. [15] For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” [16] The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, [17] and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:14-17)

John MacArthur notes that when Pentecost happened it was the beginning of Jesus’ prayer being realized.

We have to see then that unity with God is a priori and what flows from it is this like-mindedness with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We should be able to settle disputes, and live harmoniously with each other because we are united with Christ, because of His work, and because of His indwelling presence.

J.C. Ryle remarks, “The true secret of the unity of believers lies in the expression, ‘one in us.’ They can only be thoroughly ‘one’ by being joined at the same time to one Father and to one Savior. Then they will be one with on another.”

I mentioned this earlier, but there are sometimes when the already/not yet reality of this life really rises to the surface, and I believe that in the area of unity we see that clearly.  We are filled with the Spirit, yet the flesh still encroaches and keeps us from being in harmony and unity with others.  The same goes for our words and thoughts and actions – even though the Spirit of God dwells in us, yet we still behave as though we are our own gods and satisfy our own desires instead of looking to please God first.  This is the tension we live with and will continue to live with until our Lord returns.

Now, all of this unity is really important, but it cannot be understood apart from knowledge of God and His message.  D.A. Carson puts it so well that it is worth citing his words at length:

This is not simply a ‘unity of love’. It is a unity predicated on adherence to the revelation the Father mediated to the first disciples through his Son, the revelation they accepted (vs. 6, 8) and then passed on (‘those who will believe in me through their message’, vs. 20). It is analogous to the oneness Jesus enjoys with his Father, here fleshed out in the words just as you are in me and I am in you. The Father is actually in the Son, so much so that we can be told that it is the Father who is performing the Son’s works (14:10); yet the Son is in the Father, not only in dependence upon and obedience to him, but his agent in creation (1:2-3) and his wholly concurring Son in the redemption and preservation of those the Father has given him (6:37-40; 17:6, 19). The Father and the Son are distinguishable (the pre-incarnate Word is ‘with’ God, 1:1; the Son prays to his Father; the Father commissions and sends, while the Son obeys), yet they are one.

And therefore in order to be unified with Jesus and with the Father we must first “adhere” to their revelation, we must know God.  Indeed that is something we’ll discuss as we look at the next series of verses.  But first we need to examine one last glorious truth about what Jesus is saying here…

The Purpose of Unity

In verse 23 we read what Jesus has in mind for all this talk of unity – what His purpose is – and this is what He says, “so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”  This is certainly the thrust of John’s gospel is it not?  He wants people to know that God sent Jesus and that Jesus is the Lord of all, He is the Messiah.

There are two things Jesus is asking for here:

  1. That the world will know that He was sent from God
  2. That the world (and we) will know that God the Father loves us just as He loves the Son

Jesus is saying firstly that when the world sees us united to the Father and the Son through the Spirit they will know that something is different.  That something is a supernatural something is it not?  Jesus expects that this unity will have such an outward manifestation as to warrant the world coming to the conclusion that He (Jesus) was sent from God.  There are obviously several steps logically that people would have to go through in order to make that connection, but the fact remains that here Jesus foresees this, He wants this, He’s praying for this, and this is consequently what our lives are all about.

Jesus is praying that all who come to believe in Him will be united with Him and the Father in such an obvious way that people will look at this, will notice this and will say “those people have a special bond with the God of the universe and His Son whom He sent.”  They will know we are Christ followers and have to conclude that Jesus must have been sent from God because only a divine being could affect such a change in John Doe here!  There’s no other way they will be able to explain what they see and hear unless somehow these Jesus lovers are really connected to a higher power.  That’s the purpose of what Jesus is saying here.

Secondly, we have to note that one of the things the world will notice and we will cherish is that disciples of the Lord Jesus are loved by the Father – the creator of the universe, mind you – as He loves His Son.

Carson rightly says that, “the thought is breathtakingly extravagant.”  It is so amazing that its worth pondering and then realizing once again that this is like Jesus’ last will and testament here.  He’s about to die, and what does He pray for?  For us to have love poured upon us to such a degree that the world will have to conclude that we’ve been taken under the wing of God Himself and because we are united to Christ we are one with Him in receiving the love that the Father has shed abroad on the Son.

It is almost as if (in my mind) a see pitcher of water (the Father) pouring into the cup of the Son and this cup is connected to a wide saucer (the church) which is the beneficiary of the overflow from the pitcher.  We receive love certainly because God has set his particular affection upon us individually, but here we see a different picture of our reception of the love of God as a direct consequence to our connection to the Son.

Can’t Hold Him Down

As I was studying another passage in Acts 2 with some guys this past Sunday, we ran headlong into Acts 2:24.  Check it out:

God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:24 ESV)

Now, we didn’t spend a lot of time on it then, but this has always been one of my favorite passages when regulating/guiding my understanding of the resurrection.  And since its Easter week (“Holy Week”), I thought I’d just bring this verse to your attention for meditation in the days ahead.

I really wanted to mention two things. First, there’s something amazing here about his ontology (His essence), and second, there’s some great truths that should put our mind to ease about our own salvation.

So first, a quick note about the “ontology” or “essence” of Jesus.  He is, of course, fully man.  That’s how He was able to be killed in the first place.   But because you cannot actually kill God, He is unable to die, and therefore death simply can’t hold him. You can’t snuff out the essence of life just like darkness, as a natural principle of science, flees from the room when you turn on the light. The rules that govern reality don’t work like that.  Had Jesus stayed dead, its not like people could say “well there goes that myth” because there would be not people to say that. When you kill the single entity that is powering and upholding our understanding of life and reality as we know it (Heb. 1:1-3, and Col. 1:15-20), then you would (or “might” since its impossible) also destroy all life which is tied to that power source pretty much instantly.

Let that thought settle in your mind a bit…can you imagine having crucified this man and then see Him walk around Jerusalem for 40 days teaching people?!  ……and you wonder why this whole Christianity thing really took off?  That, by the way, is what Easter is all about.  Time to bring your mind into a proper state to once again focus on this truth and then be subsequently blown by this truth.

But secondly, I love this verse because for those who might be struggling with that thought of “well, I definitely believe in Jesus, I definitely believe I’m saved, and I have repented of my sins…but, man, I just struggle with whether or not I’ll lose my salvation.  I know my sinfulness, and I know I’m just constantly failing!” This is the passage for you.

Why?  Well think about it this way – if Jesus is said not to be able to “be held by (death)” then that means He has power over death.  And when you combine that truth with another from Romans six which states, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:4-5 ESV)” — what you get then is the perfect combination for assurance that you’ll make it to the end without losing a thing!  

In fact, I think that’s exactly what the last part of Romans 8 is all about, and what the whole of the chapter is about, namely that since God is in charge and in control of the saving your soul from start to finish, you have to assume He knows what He’s doing AND that He can see the project through to completion.

Definitely check out Romans 8, but also check out John 6, because Jesus says some remarkable things there as well.  I’m going to leave you with a few of those verses — but first, you need to remember, and (rightly) assume that when Jesus teaches us something you can know with absolute certainty that its going to happen. Why?  Well, anyone who can control acts of nature, raise people to life, heal them of hideous diseases, multiply food without calling for takeout, and beat the grave can pretty much by guaranteed to keep your salvation safe until He comes back (note the sarcasm…).  Now here’s what Jesus says:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:35-40 ESV)

 

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.”