Jesus was not only the Messiah, not only the Son of God — he was a celebrity. He was known for being known. And not everyone who followed him did so for the right reasons. The longer they hung around, the more they heard him say things that conflicted with their hopes. Eventually, disappointed or even offended, they turned and walked away.
We don’t know how many people were there in the synagogue the day John describes at the end of chapter 6 of his gospel. We don’t know how many decided to give up on Jesus, nor how many stayed. But we know that Peter and the others in Jesus’ inner circle were still there, and that Jesus had an important question to ask them:
Jesus asked the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”
Simon Peter answered, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are God’s holy one.”
Jesus replied, “Didn’t I choose you twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” He was speaking of Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him. (John 6:67-71, CEB)
Not surprisingly, Peter is the one who answers the question. And he is bold and confident in speaking for the group. As biblical scholars would say, his use of the pronouns “you” and “we” are emphatic: “Lord, you have the words of eternal life, and we believe.”
All throughout the earlier conversation in the synagogue, Jesus had been trying to redirect his listeners: You’re looking for bread to fill your stomachs. What you should be looking for is the “bread” that leads to eternal life. But that’s not why they were pursuing him, and they couldn’t hear the words for the gracious promise they were.
But Peter gets it — at least that part of it. Eternal life was what they were after, and Jesus was the only way there. Moreover, he calls Jesus “God’s holy one.” It’s uncertain from where Peter got the title, but it is reminiscent of one of God’s names in the Old Testament: “the Holy One of Israel.” It’s quite possible that Peter meant more than he could say.
I imagine the others nodding in agreement as Peter spoke. “We believe!” he said confidently.
But Jesus knew better. He had just been abandoned by a good number of fickle followers, and he already knew who his betrayer would be (vss. 64, 71). God had chosen Israel to be his people, and there followed generations of waffling between faith and faithlessness, between exclusive devotion and idolatry. Likewise, Jesus had chosen twelve men — a new Israel, if you like, in parallel to the twelve tribes — but not all of them believed, no matter what Peter might say.
People can say the right things, act in the expected ways, and even have Jesus stickers on their cars. But God alone knows the true state of their faith. That’s why people outside of the church so often find the lives of people inside the church so hypocritically disappointing. We, too, may be disappointed by the actions of our brothers and sisters, as they are disappointed with ours.
But it comes down to this: where else would we go for the words of eternal life?