Jefferson Vann reflects on the sad story of some disciples who chose not to follow Christ anymore. This is the 7th in a series of articles tracing the promise of resurrection life in John’s Gospel.
tripping over words
Jesus was teaching in a Jewish synagogue. He said that he is the bread that came down from the sky. His listeners thought about the stories they had been told as children – how God fed the Israelites in the wilderness by sending manna from the sky.
But Jesus told them that there was a difference. This new manna “is not like the manna your ancestors ate– and they died. The one who eats this bread will live permanently.”1 So John ties this story to others in his Gospel. These stories are designed to highlight the theme “Christ offers to raise believers to permanent life.”
But the people were not catching on. John records their reaction to his words:
- That was why, after many of his disciples heard this, they said, “This word is hard. Who can listen to it?” Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, asked them, “Is this tripping you up?2
Our English noun “scandal” and similar words like “scandalous” and “scandalize” are related to the Greek verb σκανδαλίζω that John uses here. The verb refers to placing a snare or trap (σκάνδαλον) in someone’s way. In the New Testament, it is used for causing someone to sin, or causing them to renounce their faith altogether.
Notice that it was not just the uncommitted crowds who were being tripped up by what they heard. It was many “of his disciples.” It was a delegation of his disciples who told Jesus that his word was hard. The grumblers were disciples.
Jesus’ first response to this delegation was basically to tell them that there was more where that came from.
- Then what if you were to experience the Son of Man ascending to where he was formerly?3
Jesus is saying that these disciples are going to get used to him rocking their world because this is only the beginning. Not only is it true that he came from the sky, but he is also going back there. The disciples who are not ready for that are in danger of missing out on the resurrection life that Jesus is promising. What is their problem?
- The Spirit is the one who makes someone alive. The flesh is not at all useful. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some among you who are not faithful.” (Because Jesus knew from the first those who were not faithful and the one who would hand him over.) And He said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is given to him by the Father.”4
Jesus diagnoses the problem of these scandalized disciples. There are some of them who are operating their lives according to the flesh, not according to the Spirit. One can associate with Christ according to the flesh, but it is not enough. Why not? It is the Spirit who “makes someone alive.” We have seen throughout this study of John’s Gospel that when Jesus refers to the new life he is always referring to the coming resurrection life. That is what Jesus is referring to here. He is saying that the Holy Spirit will reveal God’s words to certain people. These people will come to Christ, becoming faithful followers of him. The eventual result will be that these faithful followers will be given new life at the resurrection.
But there is another path that some of these disciples are following. They are claiming to be loyal to Christ, but they are not taking in his words. His words have become hard sayings to them, and they cannot accept them. This is what it means to walk according to the flesh.
The apostle Paul provides the most extensive treatment of the theological concept of walking according to the flesh (κατὰ σάρκα) compared to walking according to the Spirit (κατὰ πνεῦμα).
- Christ was born a descendant of David according to the flesh,5 but was declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit.”6 There is a natural birth which results in a natural life. This is κατὰ σάρκα. There is a promise of a resurrection to permanent life through the Holy Spirit. This is κατὰ πνεῦμα.
- Those who walk according to the flesh cannot hope to fulfil the requirement of the law. But the Holy Spirit helps those who walk according to the Spirit to put away their previous inclinations and walk according to the pattern of their coming resurrected life.7
- “In addition, if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you. So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh (because if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.”8 Note that Paul emphasizes the resurrection unto permanent life as the eventual result of walking κατὰ πνεῦμα. That is the same theological truth that Jesus stated.
- Paul regrets that many of Christ’s kinsmen according to the flesh are missing out on the promise of resurrection life because they are not walking according to the Spirit.9
- Paul explains the reason for this: Why not? Because they pursued it not by having faith but (as if it were possible) by doing works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone…10 This shows that Paul was thinking along the same lines as Jesus (as recorded in John 6), even using the word σκάνδαλον as a verbal footnote.
- Paul defended his mission work by insisting that even though he walked according to the flesh, he did not engage in warfare according to the flesh.11 Spiritual warfare requires trusting in the word of God, the sword of the Spirit, and it requires praying at all times in the Spirit.12
- Paul taught about the difference between the two orientations using the allegorical comparison of Sarah and Hagar. Hagar represented the “present Jerusalem” but Sarah represented the “Jerusalem above.” These two mothers give birth to those who have the two orientations. Hagar gives birth to those who live according to the flesh. Sarah gives birth to those who live according to the Spirit – or as Paul puts it here, “through the promise.” What promise could Paul be referring to? The promise to inherit permanent life!13
Jesus saw clearly that some who claim loyalty to him were about to separate themselves from him. They were tripping over the trap. They would not, and thus could not accept the Holy Spirit inspired words of Jesus about himself.
John records the inevitable result:
- From that moment many of his disciples went away and no longer walked with him.14
Imagine the regret these people will feel as they stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and realize that they had the promise of permanent life before them, and they refused it. They walked away from the chance to be raised to a permanent life in the future.
But not all of them.
- … Jesus said to the Twelve, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, whom would we go away to? You have the words of permanent life.15
Peter could see the promise at the end of the walk. He would not desert Jesus, even though he also had a difficult time understanding his words. But he knew that those words proclaimed a promise of a future resurrection.
Previous articles in this series:
- Christmas light
- The desert snake
- having life, or awaiting wrath
- Spring up, Oh Well
- The dead will hear, and come out
- sustenance and sacrifice
- Life from Above