THE GREAT CRISIS IN POPULAR FEELING
THE LAST DISCOURSES IN THE SYNAGOGUE OF CAPERNAUM
CHRIST THE BREAD OF LIFE
‘WILL YE ALSO GO AWAY?’
THE narrative now returns to those who, on the previous evening, had, after the miraculous meal, been ‘sent away’ to their homes. We remember, that this had been after an abortive attempt on their part to take Jesus by force and make Him their Messiah-King. We can understand that the effectual resistance of Jesus to their purpose not only weakened, but in great measure neutralised, the effect of the miracle which they had witnessed. In fact, we look upon this check as the first turning of the tide of popular enthusiasm. Let us bear in mind what ideas and expectations of an altogether external character those men connected with the Messiah of their dreams. At last, by some miracle more notable even than the giving of the Manna in the wilderness, enthusiasm has been raised to the highest pitch, and thousands were determined to give up their pilgrimage to the Passover, and then and there proclaim the Galilean Teacher Israel’s King. If He were the Messiah, such was His rightful title. Why then did He so strenuously and effectually resist it? In ignorance of His real views concerning the Kingship, they would naturally conclude that it must have been from fear, from misgiving, from want of belief in Himself. At any rate, He could not be the Messiah, Who would not be Israel’s King. Enthusiasm of this kind, once repressed, could never be kindled again. Henceforth there was continuous misunderstanding, doubt and defection among former adherents, growing into opposition and hatred unto death. Even to those who took not this position, Jesus, His Words and Works, were henceforth a constant mystery. 2 And so it came, that the morning after the miraculous meal found the vast majority of those who had been fed, either in their homes or on their pilgrim-way to the Passover at Jerusalem. Only comparatively few came back to seek Him, where they had eaten bread at His Hand. And even to them, as the after-conversation shows, Jesus was a mystery. They could not disbelieve, and yet they could not believe; and they sought both ‘a sign’ to guide, and an explanation to give them its understanding. Yet out of them was there such selection of grace, that all that the Father had given would reach Him, and that they who, by a personal act of believing choice and by determination of conviction, would come, should in no wise be rejected of Him.
It is this view of the mental and moral state of those who, on the morning after the meal, came to seek Jesus, which alone explains the question and answers of the interview at Capernaum. As we read it: ‘the day following the multitude which stood on the other (the eastern) side of the sea’ ‘saw that Jesus was not there, neither His disciples.’ 3 But of two facts they were cognizant. They knew that, on the evening before, only one boat had come over, bringing Jesus and His disciples; and that Jesus had not returned in it with His disciples, for they had seen them depart, while Jesus remained to dismiss the people. In these circumstances they probably imagined, that Christ had returned on foot by land, being, of course, ignorant of the miracle of that night. But the wind which had been contrary to the disciples, had also driven over to the eastern shore a number of fishing-boats from Tiberias (and this is one of the undesigned confirmations of the narrative). These they now hired, and came to Capernaum, making inquiry for Jesus. Whether on that Friday afternoon they went to meet Him on His way from Gennesaret (which the wording of St. John vi. 25 makes likely), or awaited His arrival at Capernaum, is of little importance. Similarly, it is difficult to determine whether the conversation and outlined address of Christ took place on one or partly on several occasions: on the Friday afternoon or Sabbath morning, or only on the Sabbath. All that we know for certain is, that the last part (at any rate 4) was spoken ‘in Synagogue, as He taught in Capernaum.’ 5 It has been well observed, that ‘there are evident breaks after verse 40 and verse 51.’ 6 Probably the succession of events may have been that part of what is here recorded by St. John 7 had taken place when those from across the Lake had first met Jesus; 8 part on the way to, and entering, the Synagogue; 9 and part as what He spoke in His Discourse, 10 and then after the defection of some of His former disciples. 11 But we can only suggest such an arrangement, since it would have been quite consistent with Jewish practice, that the greater part should have taken place in the Synagogue itself, the Jewish questions and objections representing either an irregular running commentary on His Words, or expressions during breaks in, or at the conclusion of, His teaching.
This, however, is a primary requirement, that, what Christ is reported to have spoken, should appear suited to His hearers: such as would appeal to what they knew, such also as they could understand. This must be kept in view, even while admitting that the Evangelist wrote his Gospel in the light of much later and fuller knowledge, and for the instruction of the Christian Church, and that there may be breaks and omissions in the reported, as compared with the original Discourse, which, if supplied, would make its understanding much easier to a Jew. On the other hand, we have to bear in mind all the circumstances of the case. The Discourse in question was delivered in the city, which had been the scene of so many of Christ’s great miracles, and the centre of His teaching, and in the Synagogue, built by the good
Centurion, and of which Jairus was the chief ruler. Here we have the outward and inward conditions for even the most advanced teaching of Christ. Again, it was delivered under twofold moral conditions, to which we may expect the Discourse of Christ to be adapted. For, first, it was after that miraculous feeding which had raised the popular enthusiasm to the highest pitch, and also after that chilling disappointment of their Judaistic hopes in Christ’s utmost resistance to His Messianic proclamation. They now came ‘seeking for Jesus,’ in every sense of the word. They knew not what to make of those, to them, contradictory and irreconcilable facts; they came, because they did eat of the loaves, without seeing in them ‘signs.’ 12 And therefore they came for such a ‘sign’ as they could perceive, and for such teaching in interpretation of it as they could understand. They were outwardly – by what had happened – prepared for the very highest teaching, to which the preceding events had led up, and therefore they must receive such, if any. But they were not inwardly prepared for it, and therefore they could not understand it. Secondly, and in connection with it, we must remember that two high points had been reached – by the people, that Jesus was the Messiah-King; by the ship’s company, that He was the Son of God. However imperfectly these truths may have been apprehended, yet the teaching of Christ, if it was to be progressive, must start from them and then point onwards and upwards. In this expectation we shall not be disappointed. And if, by the side of all this, we shall find allusions to peculiarly Jewish thoughts and views, these will not only confirm the Evangelic narrative, but furnish additional evidence of the Jewish authorship of the Fourth Gospel.
Such were the carnal thoughts about the Messiah and His Kingdom of those who sought Jesus because they ‘ate of the loaves, and were filled.’ What a contrast between them and the Christ, as He pointed them from the search for such meat to ‘work for the meat which He would give them,’ not a merely Jewish Messiah, but as ‘the son of Man.’ And yet, in uttering this strange truth, Jesus could appeal to something they knew when He added, ‘for Him the Father hath sealed, even God.’ The words, which seem almost inexplicable in this connection, become clear when we remember that this was a well-known Jewish expression. According to the Rabbis, ‘the seal of God was Truth (the three letters of which this word is composed in Hebrew being, as was significantly pointed out, respectively the first, the middle, and the last letters of the alphabet. Thus the words of Christ would convey to His hearers that for the real meat, which would endure to eternal life – for the better Messianic banquet – they must come to Him, because God had impressed upon Him His own seal of truth, and so authenticated His Teaching and Mission.
In passing, we mark this as a Jewish allusion, which only a Jewish writer (not an Ephesian Gospel) would have recorded. But it is by no means the only one. It almost seems like a sudden gleam of light – as if they were putting their hand to this Divine Seal, when they now ask Him what they must do, in order to work the Works of God? Yet strangely refracted seems this ray of light, when they connect the Works of God with their own doing. And Christ directed them, as before, only more clearly, to Himself. To work the Works of God they must not do, but believe in Him Whom God had sent. Their twofold error consisted in imagining, that they could work the Works of God, and this by some doing of their own. On the other hand, Christ would have taught them that these Works of God were independent of man, and that they would be achieved through man’s faith in the Mission of the Christ.
Here, then, was a real sign. In their view the events of yesterday must lead up to some such sign, if they had any real meaning. They had been told to believe on Him, as the One authenticated by God with the seal of Truth, and Who would give them meat to eternal life. By what sign would Christ corroborate His assertion, that they might see and believe? What work would He do to vindicate His claim? Their fathers had eaten manna in the wilderness. To understand the reasoning of the Jews, implied but not fully expressed, as also the answer of Jesus, it is necessary to bear in mind (what forms another evidence of the Jewish authorship of the Fourth Gospel), that it was the oft and most anciently expressed opinion that, although God had given them this bread out of heaven, yet it was given through the merits of Moses, and ceased with his death. 23 This the Jews had probably in view, when they asked: ‘What workest Thou?’; and this was the meaning of Christ’s emphatic assertion, that it was not Moses who gave Israel that bread. And then by what, with all reverence, may still be designated a peculiarly Jewish turn of reasoning – such as only those familiar with Jewish literature can fully appreciate (and which none but a Jewish reporter would have inserted in his Gospel) – the Saviour makes quite different, yet to them familiar, application of the manna. Moses had not given it – his merits had not procured it – but His Father gave them the true bread out of heaven. ‘For,’ as He explained, ‘the bread of God is that 24 which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.’ Again, this very Rabbinic tradition, which described in such glowing language the wonders of that manna, also further explained its other and real meaning to be, that if Wisdom said, ‘Eat of my bread and drink of my wine,’ 25 it indicated that the manna and the miraculous water-supply were the sequence of Israel’s receiving the Law and the Commandments 26 – for the real bread from heaven was the Law.
It was an appeal which the Jews understood, and to which they could not but respond. Yet the mood was brief. As Jesus, in answer to the appeal that He would evermore give them this bread, once more directed them to Himself – from works of men to the Works of God and to faith – the passing gleam of spiritual hope had already died out, for they had seen Him and ‘yet did not believe.’
With these words of mingled sadness and judgment, Jesus turned away from His questioners. The solemn sayings which now followed 29 could not have been spoken to, and they would not have been understood by, the multitude. And accordingly we find that, when the conversation of the Jews is once more introduced, 30 it takes up the thread where it had been broken off, when Jesus spake of Himself as the Bread Which had come down from heaven. Had they heard what, in our view, Jesus spake only to His disciples, their objections would have been to more than merely the incongruity of Christ’s claim to have come down from heaven.
Although these wonderful statements reached in their full meaning far beyond the present horizon of His disciples, and even to the utmost bounds of later revelation and Christian knowledge, there is nothing in them which could have seemed absolutely strange or unintelligible to those who heard them. Given belief in the Messiahship of Jesus and His Mission by the Father; given experience of what He had done, and perhaps, to a certain extent, Jewish expectancy of what the Messiah would do in the last day; and all this directed or corrected by the knowledge concerning His work which His teaching had imparted, and the words were intelligible and most suitable, even though they would not convey to them all that they mean to us. If so seemingly incongruous an illustration might be used, they looked through a telescope that was not yet drawn out, and saw the same objects, through quite diminutively and far otherwise than we, as gradually the hand of Time has drawn out fully that through which both they and we, who believe, intently gaze on the Son.
Yet we also mark, that what Jesus now spake to ‘the Jews’ was the same in substance, though different in application, from what He had just uttered to the disciples. This, not merely in regard to the Messianic prediction of the Resurrection, but even in what He pronounced as the judgment on their murmuring. The words: ‘No man can come to Me, except the Father Which hath sent Me draw him,’ present only the converse aspect of those to the disciples: ‘All that which the Father giveth Me shall come unto Me, and him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out.’ For, far from being a judgment on, it would have been an excuse of, Jewish unbelief, and, indeed, entirely discordant with all Christ’s teaching, if the inability to come were regarded as other than personal and moral, springing from man’s ignorance and opposition to spiritual things. No man can come to the Christ – such is the condition of the human mind and heart, that coming to Christ as a disciple is, not an outward, but an inward, not a physical, but a moral impossibility – except the Father ‘draw him.’ And this, again, not in the sense of any constraint, but in that of the personal, moral, loving influence and revelation, to which Christ afterwards refers when He saith: ‘And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Myself.’
Nor did Jesus, even while uttering these high, entirely un-Jewish truths, forget that He was speaking them to Jews. The appeal to their own Prophets was the more telling, that Jewish tradition also applied these two prophecies (Is. 54 v 13 ; Jer. 31 v 34) to the teaching by God in the Messianic Age. But the explanation of the manner and issue of God’s teaching was new: ‘Everyone that hath heard from the Father, and learned, cometh unto Me.’ And this, not by some external or realistic contact with God, such as they regarded that of Moses in the past, or expected for themselves in the latter days; only ‘He Which is from God, He hath seen the Father.’ But even this might sound general and without exclusive reference to Christ. So, also, might this statement seem: ‘He that believeth 45 hath eternal life.’ Not so the final application, in which the subject was carried to its ultimate bearing, and all that might have seemed general or mysterious plainly set forth. The Personality of Christ was the Bread of Life: ‘I am the Bread of Life.’ The Manna had not been bread of life, for those who ate it had died, their carcasses had fallen in the wilderness. Not so in regard to this, the true Bread from heaven. To share in that Food was to have everlasting life, a life which the sin and death of unbelief and judgment would not cut short, as it had that of them who had eaten the Manna and died in the wilderness. It was another and a better Bread which came from heaven in Christ, and another, better, and deathless life which was connected with it: ‘the Bread that I will give is My Flesh, 47 for the life of the world.’
Though they spake it not, this was the rock of offence over which they stumbled and fell. And Jesus read their thoughts. How unfit were they to receive all that was yet to happen in connection with the Christ – how unprepared for it!
If they stumbled at this, what when they came to contemplate 54 the far more mysterious and un-Jewish facts of the Messiah’s Crucifixion and Ascension! 55 Truly, not outward following, but only inward and spiritual life-quickening could be of profit – even in the case of those who heard the very Words of Christ, which were spirit and life. Thus it again appeared, and most fully, that, morally speaking, it was absolutely impossible to come to Him, even if His Words were heard, except under the gracious influence from above.
And so this was the great crisis in the History of the Christ. We have traced the gradual growth and development of the popular movement, till the murder of the Baptist stirred popular feeling to its inmost depth. With his death it seemed as if the Messianic hope, awakened by his preaching and testimony to Christ, were fading from view. It was a terrible disappointment, not easily borne. Now must it be decided, whether Jesus was really the Messiah. His Works, notwithstanding what the Pharisees said, seemed to prove it. Then let it appear; let it come, stroke upon stroke – each louder and more effective than the other – till the land rang with the shout of victory and the world itself re-echoed it. And so it seemed. That miraculous feeding – that wilderness-cry of Hosanna to the Galilean King-Messiah from thousands of Galilean voices – what were they but its beginning? All the greater was the disappointment: first, in the repression of the movement – so to speak, the retreat of the Messiah, His voluntary abdication, rather, His defeat; then, next day, the incongruousness of a King, Whose few unlearned followers, in their ignorance and un-Jewish neglect of most sacred ordinances, outraged every Jewish feeling, and whose conduct was even vindicated by their Master in a general attack on all traditionalism, that basis of Judaism – as it might be represented, to the contempt of religion and even of common truthfulness in the denunciation of solemn vows! This was not the Messiah Whom the many – nay, Whom almost any – would own.
Here, then, we are at the parting of the two ways; and, just because it was the hour of decision, did Christ so clearly set forth the highest truths concerning Himself, in opposition to the views which the multitude entertained about the Messiah. The result was yet another and a sorer defection. ‘Upon this many of His disciples went back, and walked no more with Him.’ 58 Nay, the searching trial reached even unto the hearts of the Twelve. Would they also go away? It was an anticipation of Gethsemane – its first experience. But one thing kept them true. It was the experience of the past. This was the basis of their present faith and allegiance. They could not go back to their old past; they must cleave to Him. So Peter spake it in name of them all: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Words of Eternal Life hast Thou!’ Nay, and more than this, as the result of what they had learned: ‘And we have believed and know that Thou art the Holy One of God.’ 59 60 It is thus, also, that many of us, whose thoughts may have been sorely tossed, and whose foundations terribly assailed, may have found our first resting-place in the assured, unassailable spiritual experience of the past. Whither can we go for Words of Eternal Life, if not to Christ? If He fails us, then all hope of the Eternal is gone. But He has the Words of Eternal life – and we believed when they first came to us; nay, we know that He is the Holy One of God. And this conveys all that faith needs for further learning. The rest will He show, when He is transfigured in our sight.
But of these Twelve Christ knew one to be ‘a devil’ – like that Angel, fallen from highest height to lowest depth. 61 The apostasy of Judas had already commenced in his heart. And, the greater the popular expectancy and disappointment had been, the greater the reaction and the enmity that followed. The hour of decision was past, and the hand on the dial pointed to the hour of His Death.