Turning Back and Dropping Out—John 6:59-71

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 18

by Reta Halteman Finger

Capernaum Synagogue Ruins
This 4th century synagogue stands atop the remains of the 1st century synagogue in the Jewish town of Capernaum. Here occurred the Bread of Life discourse and the ensuing departure of many disciples (John 6:59). Photo by Reta Halteman Finger

Every January my congregation at Community Mennonite Church sets aside three “commitment Sundays.” To prepare, we are encouraged to write out a 100-word commitment to Christ and our church for that calendar year. During the worship services on these Sundays, members publicly read or hand in their written statement of what they believe and what ministries they plan to continue or take up during that year. This annual tradition encourages us to reflect on what membership in this Body of Christ means, both spiritually and in concrete action.

In the previous lesson of John 6:30-59, Jesus comes on a lot stronger to his disciples than our members do to each other! Throughout this Gospel, the author has emphasized belief. Jesus has been doing many “signs” for people in order to draw them into a commitment to the God who sent him. But now he calls for a loyalty so intimate that it demands eating his flesh and drinking his blood! (6:50-56).

Hearing this, many of these disciples are offended. Is it because Jewish law forbids them to consume blood? Or do they finally understand that believing in Jesus will demand their highest loyalty? Whatever the reason, many conclude, “I’m not ready for this,” or “this guy is way too extreme,” or “this teaching is too hard” (6:60). At this critical point in Jesus’ mission, “many of his disciples turn back and no longer go about with him” (6:66).

How do we interpret “belief”?

There are many Christians I have known or read about who like the Gospel of John. Sometimes what they like is a simplistic interpretation:  all you have to do is believe in Jesus and then you’re saved and have eternal life. Put more crassly, it’s “fire insurance” for not going to hell. More thoughtful persons might observe that this Gospel puts less emphasis on morality and righteous behavior than do the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, the very fact that interested followers of Jesus are now deserting in droves implies that something more has been called for than mere head belief.

Recently, I was asked to review a book by a New Testament scholar titled Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics. In an early chapter, author Gordon Zerbe examines Paul’s use of the Greek verb pisteuō (believe) and its noun form pistis (faith). For Paul, to believe in Jesus is to remain faithful to him just as God has been faithful to us. The commitment demands fidelity, trust, and obedience. It is highly political—a vow of allegiance to Jesus over and above any other allegiance. Zerbe’s preferred term is “loyalty.” True Jesus-believers are more accurately called “loyalists.”

The meaning of belief (pistis) in this Gospel is identical to Paul’s. The invitation to eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood implies the kind of loyalty that most disciples do not or cannot give to him. And Jesus, who is the Spiritual Director par excellence, understands this. “Jesus knew from the first who were the ones who did not believe” (6:64).

“Do you also wish to go away?”

Caesarea Philippi in northern Palestine
In contrast to the location in John’s Gospel, Peter’s declaration of Jesus as Messiah in the Synoptics takes place near Caesarea Philippi in northern Palestine. The Greek god Pan was worshiped here, and later a courthouse was built here to honor Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and Roman imperial justice. Her statue was placed in the large niche. Unbelief is everywhere! Photo by Reta Halteman Finger.

It’s very likely that the responses to the Bread of Life discourse reflect not only what Jesus experienced in his lifetime, but also what the author of this Gospel would later confront during political oppression or inter-church strife. When things get tough and commitment demands too much, people leave. Some may actively turn against the groups or leaders they once followed.

I find the final paragraph (6:66-71) very moving because it seems so relevant for our materialistic, secularized culture. Jesus aggressively challenges the 12 disciples who are closest to him, “Do you also wish to go away?”  Peter responds, “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (verses 68-69).

One commentator sees Peter’s response as lukewarm and unenthusiastic, contrasting it with its parallel in the Synoptics of Peter’s pivotal confession that Jesus is the Messiah (Mk 8:27-30; Mt 16:13-20; Lk 9:18-20). But I personally identify with this poignant human cry, similar to the man who begged Jesus to help his unbelief (Mk 9:14-24). I have agnostic friends who cannot understand my loyalty to Jesus above that of any other great historical figure. I have friends who think there are many different ways to God, so why privilege Jesus? I am interested in science and must continually figure out how to integrate scientific  principles with my theology. I get discouraged by the suffering and evil in the world and my own helplessness at changing anything.

But yet, when I think of any alternate path, I am driven back to Peter’s words: “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Jesus affirms Peter, but reminds him that, even among the chosen 12, one is a traitor. Loyalty is hard work!

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1. If you are a believer, what is your commitment to the Jesus of the New Testament? Could you write it in 100 words? What tempts you to give up and drop out?

2. Are there religious groups and organizations that, in your experience, should be dropped out of? What were/are the reasons?

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you Reta for your thoughtful reflection on this and other passages that resonate with my own as I pray for those “agnostics” in my life.

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