(Jesus) asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:13b-17 NIV).
Just before Jesus predicts his suffering and death in Jerusalem, we have this wonderful moment when Peter gives his famous confession about who Jesus is. You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Heady stuff. Especially in the context of what was going on at that point in Jesus’ ministry.
Not many people realize that after feeding the 5000, there was a group of people who intended to come and force Jesus to become king (John 6:15). Jesus slips away by himself and then, that night he walks on water to catch up with his disciples during the storm. On the other side of the lake a lot of these same people found him again.
Jesus rebukes them harshly. Remember that these are not the Pharisees or the Chief Priests but rather the common man, many of them his disciples, his followers, the crowds who loved him. They, no doubt, thought that Jesus wanted to be king. That was the whole point, wasn’t it? The prophecies spoke of a Messiah who was a warrior king and would defeat the enemies of God. The people of Israel had been waiting forever for the Messiah to show up and now Jesus was here. He was the Messiah, and therefore should be king. He could use his power to throw out the Romans once and for all.
Perhaps their intentions were good, perhaps a bit self-serving but in any case it was not what Jesus planned to do. The people had conveniently forgotten that there was another set of prophecies about the Messiah that saw him as a suffering servant and a lamb to be slaughtered (Isaiah 53). What good was that in throwing out the Romans? It was a prophecy easily overlooked in their zeal for freedom from slavery and oppression. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it?
Now they were insisting that Jesus become their King and they had followed him to the other side of the lake to press their claim. But Jesus was having none of it. They had connected the dots between the feeding of the 5000 and the manna in the desert that Moses had brought down from heaven. Maybe they expected to see miracles from Jesus on the magnitude of the ten plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the fire on the mountain of Sinai, the daily provision of food and water in the desert for over a million people for 40 years. Heady times indeed. The heavens would part and, with hosts of angels at his command, he would fight and destroy the Roman armies and Israel would once again, as in the time of David and Solomon, take her rightful place as head of the nations, the chosen people of God.
But Jesus had other ideas. They were impressed with bread so he talked about the bread of life. They seemed to like the idea. “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:34,35).
Jesus knew that they were just trying to be polite and looking for a way to convince him still to become king. So he puts it back in their faces and tells them plainly that they do not believe in him. And it was true. The grumbling starts again because he had said that he was the “living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41 NIV). This wasn’t the idea of the Messiah that they were working with. The Messiah was supposed to be a new Moses, another like Elijah, someone who could do signs and wonders and could be counted on to lead them in the fight against the Romans.
But Jesus isn’t done. He goes even further. “This bread is my flesh,” he said, “which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6: 49-51 NIV). Everything went downhill from there. You can imagine.
Apparently this conversation is happening over multiple days and in multiple locations. The arguing and grumbling is probably happening while they are walking and moving from place to place doing ministry. Then it would, no doubt, boil over into another confrontation and Jesus would just make it worse by being even more blunt.
Can you blame them for being upset that Jesus is suggesting that they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood? What’s that all about? It makes no sense unless you, first of all, acknowledge who he truly is. Unless you sit back, shut up and allow Jesus to explain himself, to set his own agenda, to lead.
Finally in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus lays it on the line. “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53,54 NIV). Oh, for Pete’s sake. What kind of Messiah is this? Does he believe in human sacrifice? What kind of leader talks like that?
If they had understood that he was the kind of Messiah that Isaiah 53 talked about, a lamb led to the slaughter, a Passover sacrifice, thereby becoming spiritual food and drink, creating a relationship, a “oneness” with him, a total identification with his sacrifice, with the cross, with the true purpose for which he came into the world, perhaps then they would have believed and followed.
But, even that isn´t good enough for Jesus. He wouldn’t have let them off the hook. It isn’t about understanding everything. He was in the middle of doing it, showing it with his own actions, his own sacrifice. They would only understand by faith and by following. If you believe in him and answer his call to “come and follow,” it will all become clear on the journey. It isn’t about getting all of your theology straight beforehand. If you only follow when you understand, you are still in charge. It’s still your agenda. Follow because of who he is, not because of how much you have figured out. Some of what he says may sound crazy at first. Follow anyway.
John tells us that “on hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it? Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?…..The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6: 60-63 NIV).
It isn’t about eating physical flesh, Jesus was saying. Giving his closest disciples some extra grace by making things clearer. The flesh means nothing. It’s about spirit and life. It’s about relationship. Those who believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, will give up their small ambitions (boats, careers, family) and follow Him and accept His teaching and believe that it is true whether they understand it all at the moment or not. Because they know him and they trust him.
But those who do not believe in him (who he is), will find fault with him no matter what he says and does. They have their own agenda (even Judas did apparently) and will not follow the lead of the one who has been “sent from heaven”. That is why the confession of Peter is the foundation of the church. That is why it is so important to find out for yourself who Jesus is. Even when everyone else thinks believing in God is stupid and following Jesus is nuts. You must decide on that one, key thing. Who do you say that I am?
John reports that “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66 NIV). You can almost see the twelve huddled around a campfire, dejected and confused, wondering for themselves why they were there and what was going to happen next. Of course this was the perfect moment for Jesus to ask them the essential question.
After Peter blurts out his confession, Jesus sets out his agenda and defines his Messiahship. He would be a suffering servant, not a warrior king who would defeat the Romans in open battle. He would be a lamb led to the slaughter and, in that way, fight the true enemies of God – “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV). That’s where the fight is.
So he tells them that he must go to Jerusalem and must suffer and be rejected, even killed and then rise after three days. This is his plan. Will you follow him? Can you hear his voice beckoning you to join him in this cause?
And don’t think for a moment that the disciples are not fully aware of other so-called Messiahs who have made a bid for the throne and have been found wanting (Acts 5: 35-39 NIV). Not only did the Romans kill the leaders, but they routinely crucified the followers as well, a warning to other would-be rebels against the power of almighty Rome.
Don’t think for a moment that the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying, what he was asking, what was likely to happen. Jerusalem was a powder keg ready to blow and they weren’t sure what would happen. Maybe they still believed that Jesus would defeat the Romans somehow, in his own way. It was still dangerous. Seeking Jerusalem is always dangerous. Jesus was asking for a confrontation, a showdown, a final battle. Whatever their justification, whatever they were thinking, (and they were still confused about Jesus’ agenda even up to the time of the ascension c.f. Acts 1:6 NIV), they decide to follow him anyway. Just because of who he is.
It starts with a confession and the confession takes faith and faith is a gift from God. If you don’t have it, ask for it. Tell him you want to believe. He is more than happy to work with you, to get you to that place of confession, the first step in the journey of faith.
This Lenten season, he calls us once again to leave father and mother, brother and sister and follow him, whatever the cost, whatever the outcome. It starts with a confession, then comes the invitation to follow, finally the journey into darkness begins – following and carrying the light of the world.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. If you haven’t yet made a confession of faith in him, now is as good a time as any. Talk to him right now…
“Lord, I confess that you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. I don’t care what the world says, or my family, or my friends. I believe it. I know in my heart that it is true. I’m scared of following you because you tend to ask a lot of your followers, everything in fact, and I’m not sure I can do that. I want to follow you but I need your help and the encouragement of your true disciples. Send me some people who can help me on the journey. Thank you, Lord. Amen.”
After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him. It was a gradual thing but by nightfall it was obvious. They had left him.
Then Jesus said to the Twelve, “What about you, do you want to go away too?”
Simon Peter answered, “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, you Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” The disciples sat as still as stones upon the earth, their stunned faces not daring to look at one another for fear of accusation.
And Jesus went off by himself to pray. (Read more…)