Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who didn’t seem to be listening to you? It can be a frustrating experience. We repeat ourselves, perhaps more slowly. We may even get louder and louder, as if our message might get through on the strength of volume alone.
In so many of the conversations between Jesus and others in the gospel of John, Jesus speaks spiritual truths which the people can’t understand. They interpret his words with wooden literalness:
- He announces that he can rebuild the temple in three days, and the people scoff: It’s taken 47 years so far, and the temple’s still not finished. You can do it in three?
- He tells Nicodemus that he must be reborn, and Nick replies that he’s too big to fit back in his mother’s womb.
- He promises the Samaritan woman “living water,” and she replies, “Terrific! Now I won’t have to come back to draw water from this stupid well.”
And when Jesus tells the people that he is the bread of life, and that “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51, CEB), the people start arguing among themselves and say, “He wants to give us his flesh to eat? Eeewww, gross.”
Much of what he says in John 6 is just repetition. Though he says the same things more than once, they still can’t hear: I am the bread; I came down from heaven; I’m here to bring eternal life and resurrection; that’s way better than manna, which might fill you up today, but won’t keep you from dying.
But Jesus doesn’t pull back his language when he doesn’t get the right response. Quite the contrary, he seems to push harder, using even more provocative words. Instead of just claiming to be the bread, he says they must eat it; then he tells them that they must eat his flesh; then he adds (four times!) that they must drink his blood (John 6:53-56).
That’s offensive language to a Jew, who would know that God forbids eating meat with blood in it. The reason for the prohibition is because an animal’s life is in its blood, and is given as a means of sacrificial atonement for one’s own life (Lev 17:11). You might hope that Jesus’ mention of blood might point the way to their understanding that he was speaking of his atoning death. But the people were having a hard time getting past their disgust at the very suggestion. By that point, some were sure to be thinking he was a crackpot. A really powerful crackpot, perhaps, but a crackpot nonetheless.
For some, the episode raises a disturbing question. If there’s so much at stake, why doesn’t he use words that are less controversial or easier to understand?
We may never have a completely satisfactory answer. But here are a few things to consider:
- There seems to be a difference in the way people approached Jesus in the first place. The people who challenged Jesus when he cleansed the temple and those who followed him after the feeding of the 5,000 both asked him for a sign (John 2:18; 6:30) as a precondition for believing. This is an indication of their faithlessness (e.g., Matt 12:39; 16:4), rather than honest seeking. Neither Nicodemus nor the Samaritan woman asks for a sign, but the signs they have seen prompt a response of faith.
- In John 6, Jesus doesn’t begin with difficult or controversial language, but with a gracious promise that they still can’t hear, because it doesn’t fit their plan.
- In John 6, Jesus also insists that his Father is the one who takes the initiative to draw people to him (vss. 37, 44), and that he will obediently stay the course and not lose a single one (vss. 37-39; see also 17:6-12).
In other words, Jesus preaches a message of grace that not everybody wants, and he seems to know which people have been given to him by the Father.
It might be nice to think that if we just made the message simple or attractive enough, everyone would believe. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. And Jesus is thus under no obligation to keep finding new ways to say things until everyone agrees.