Jesus boldly declared himself to be “the Bread of Life” promising that “whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (Jn.6:46,58) He said the words He spoke were ‘spirit and life’ and that those who received them would have Eternal life. (6:63) What an offer?! Seems simple enough. Eternal life should be a ‘hot item’ in a world where death is sure and the fear of it tyrannizes rich and poor alike (at least when we’re not so distracted we forget life is transient!). Why then don’t all believe? And the ones who say they do, why don’t they look like the One they claim to be following?
Have we missed something? Have we not seen the ‘real Jesus’? There are plenty of books out there to remind us how beautiful, winsome and indeed loveable Jesus is, complete with exemplary Scripture passages. (I’m in the process of reviewing one such book. More on that next time?!) Combine this image with Jesus’ depictions of the Kingdom of God as one of love, joy and peace devoid of sickness, want or pain and why wouldn’t the whole world ‘fall for Him’ and be saved? Why does the Bible depict following Him to be a narrow way and ‘few there be that find it’? (Mt.7:14) Is it only because we haven’t presented Jesus well enough? Haven’t done enough miracles in His name? Haven’t removed enough of the stigma of ‘dead religion’ from our churches, haven’t been ‘hip’ enough in one way or another?
I’ve been considering Jesus’ ministry years—the words He spoke, the miracles He did, the Crowds that followed him. They definitely ‘liked’ Him. (He’d have gotten Facebook and Twitter acclaim and “American–well, Israeli—Idol” status besides!) Have you heard Him teach?! Did you see what Jesus did today? He had come into the world to show them what the Kingdom of God was like—sin free, sickness free, full of love, peace and joy… They liked that! He made a big splash, attracted crowds, healed all who came to him, fed multitudes, preached Good News…He had an enthusiastic following. For a time.
Yes, admittedly some hated Him—the holier-than-thou, the religious leaders, the proud, and the ones still enjoying their sin. His authority one-upped theirs. His power trumped theirs. He drew bigger crowds. And he trampled ‘sacred cows’. His presence was a threat to feelings of self-sufficiency of any sort, and self-righteousness in particular!
But back to the crowds who ‘loved’ Him, the ‘followers’. Did they really love Him? Or did they love the way He made them feel? His words were life but sometimes they felt more like death. Consider these:
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Jn.12:25
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.Lk.9:23
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Lk.14:26
Jesus didn’t seem concerned with saying what people wanted to hear. He came to ‘bear witness to the truth’ (Jn.18:37) and was confident that those who were ‘of the truth’ would listen. The ‘rich young ruler’ was a ‘shoo in’ by any modern standard. He was an enthusiastic ‘follower’. He was keen on having that ‘eternal life’ Jesus talked about. He even came to the right place with his questions and in the right posture. Kneeling down he asked Jesus: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk.10:17)
Jesus straightway challenged his understanding of ‘good’, clarifying that only God is good. Could he read this man’s mind…‘well, I’m pretty good too…’ ? Then he went on to draw out the man’s claim to goodness. Yep, he considered himself a keeper of all the commandments, since his childhood even! Yep, he was pretty good. Funny thing is, Jesus didn’t clap him on the back and say, ‘Way to go! Keep up the good work. You’re an asset to my Kingdom!’ He didn’t even invite him to pray and ‘accept Jesus’ into His life. No, Jesus cut to the heart of the matter, saw what was keeping this man from eternal life, and told him the last thing he wanted to hear. The impossible thing. The thing that sounded more like a death sentence than a way to inherit life. He told him to give away his claim to significance. To sell everything he owned and give the money away and then to come follow Jesus. He told him what he did not want to hear because He loved him. The text makes this very clear: ” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him…” (Mk.10:21) Faithful are the wounds of a friend…
Had He merely wanted an enthusiastic temporal following Jesus would have done better to have stepped up the miracles and kept his hard words to Himself. To fill stomachs and heal the sick is a lot easier than changing hearts. After the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand (Jn.6) Jesus confronted the crowds for their short-sighted focus. He said: “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs (that point to the Messiah) but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” And He warned them: “Don’t labor for the food that perishes (or any other temporary comfort), but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Jn.6:26,27 He saw clearly that the people did not recognize what they needed most—they needed LIFE—they were dead in their sins. But all they could think about was the next meal. They were fixated on the temporal and Jesus had come to redeem them for eternity.
Sometimes we ‘market’ the Gospel in short-sighted ways. It’ll fix your marriage, heal your wounds, help you cope, bring you friends, and clean up the mess you’ve made of life…
It may, (and it may not) but is that the essence of the Gospel? Is this the Gospel we really want to preach? Yes, Jesus healed the sick and cleansed the leper. He fed the hungry and raised the dead. But ultimately He came to die so their could be a Gospel to preach! He came to give loved but helpless sinners access to the Life that is only found in God. Consider this perspective:
“Anytime that Jesus is used as a means to an end, a false gospel has been introduced and the thing improperly focused on becomes a false god.” * Gulp. Could this be so?
To ‘use’ the Gospel as if it were a product or service we can tailor to a person’s felt needs is to forget that the Gospel calls us to submit to the God of the universe, not for our pleasure but for His service, David F. Wells writes. The problem is this, he says: Our felt needs will not naturally admit to sin as our #1 problem or God’s forgiveness as our #1 need. We will not naturally turn the rule of our lives over to God and step down from our independent ‘right to choose’.
“The product we will seek naturally will not be the gospel. It will be a therapy of some kind, a technique for life, perhaps a way of connecting more deeply with our own spiritual selves on our own terms, terms that require no repentance and no redemption. It will not be the gospel.” **
Does this really matter, so long as there are enthusiastic followers? Wells says that when we reduce Christ ‘simply to a product we buy to satisfy our needs’ we destroy the doctrines of sin, the incarnation and of redemption and produce a ‘spirituality’ that is virtually indistinguishable from the spirituality in our culture, which is predominantly non-Christian!** (Is it any wonder we see all kinds of New Age and pagan practices entering mainstream ‘faith’ as the new normal?… but I digress). Jesus came to buy our redemption at a horrendous price. If we ‘sell’ a Gospel that means anything less, we offer a ‘bargain’ that comes ‘as is’ but is missing the essential ingredient: Life!
So Jesus did not sugar coat the truth He came to deliver. He was looking for true followers, for whom ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain’, who would really believe, who were committed to real love, not just ‘you make us feel good; we love you’. In short He was looking for people who knew they needed a Saviour not just a ‘fix’.
The picnic was over and He proceeded to use it as an object lesson, offending nearly all of his followers with His ‘Words of Life’. He said: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you…For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink….Whoever feeds on me, will live because of me.” (Jn.6:53-57)
How graphic! What was that supposed to mean?! Free picnic lunch was one thing but this was too much! Many of his disciples turned back from following him at this point. These were hard words. Not even his own brothers believed in Him. (Jn.7:5). They weren’t looking for that kind of life! Do we only believe when the message is to our liking–when the day is sunny and the picnic lunch is spread and our tummies are satisfied? Do we recognize the Words of Life when we see them? Even if they call us first to a kind of personal death to self and fail to whet our appetites.
Bread alone just won’t ‘cut it’; we’ll be forever seeking more signs, more picnics, more good feelings. We’ll need more miracles to make up for the lunch we forgot to pack. What we need more than life itself or any of its comforts is to live by the words of God alone—to feed on the Words of life—to come to the Living Word of life that we may find life, to follow the Lord of life. No matter how physically hungry we may be, no matter what power we imagine at our disposal, it is not always the right moment to turn stones into physical bread. It’s the time to listen to the Father and find our life, our directives, our satisfaction in Him. And this life is in His Son.
“Whoever has the Son has life; Whoever does not have the Son does not have life.” (I Jn.5:12)
If we have Him, let’s stop looking for ‘lunch’ in other places and feed on Him. Let’s stop expecting life to be a picnic lunch. There are things we need more than ‘loaves and fishes’ to sustain our bodies a little longer. The life of a follower is not about mustering faith, conjuring emotion, or striving to do or die. It’s not even about tapping into power. It’s about following. Living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Laying down our agendas for ‘Life’ as we want it to be, and running the race set before us with our eyes fixed on Jesus. He’s got the yoke; He’s assigned us our ‘crosses’; He’s the only One worth our allegiance. It’s His Kingdom, not ours. “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Jn 12:26 “Take up [your] cross and follow me.” Mt.16:24
And if we’ve missed the real thing and bought into a false Gospel that was about using Jesus to meet our needs, let’s stop demanding to be catered to, repent of our sinful, self-serving agendas, and invite Jesus to show us the Way to be true followers. It’s not about our ‘accepting Christ’ but about God accepting us based on the merits of His Son. We have nothing to offer but our confession that we are sinners in need of a Saviour and our belief that He’s the One and only for us! (And even that faith comes from Him!) Let’s get to know the Real Jesus, who sometimes says hard things, but only because He loves us.
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Jn.17:3
When Jesus said hard things (‘unless you drink My blood’) His followers grumbled “Who can listen to it?” Many turned away from following Him. But He turned to the twelve and asked: “Do you want to go away as well?”(Jn.6:67) Peter astutely realizing the absence of real alternatives said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Jn.6:68
The crowds trailed away, but the few who had come to know the Words of Life clung to the hope laid out in the Gospel and became the lot that ‘turned the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6) by proclaiming ‘the words of this Life’ (Acts 5:20) at peril to their own lives. True story.
May it be ours.
“This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.” Lk.9:35
[I listened to a helpful message this week drawn from I John, on testing yourself to see if you are in the faith. Convicting. Challenging. And timely, turning me once again to the only merit I have—the Cross of Christ where One was crucified for my sin. I need the reminder, often. I relate all too well to the ‘rich young ruler’. Best to be done with any claims to goodness—count it as a loss, as garbage! as Paul said, and feast on Jesus… The recording of “Are You Really a Christian” is by Todd Friel at: http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=12121215151
For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe. I Thess 2:13
*Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission, Zondervan,160.
**David F. Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, Eerdman’s Publ.,52-53.