The Bible is filled with hard sayings, truths that we find difficult to embrace. The doctrine of hell. The exclusivity of Christ. Unconditional election and effectual calling. Sometimes these doctrines can actually be barriers to faith or justifications for unbelief. We stumble over these hard sayings. We grumble over these hard sayings. We quarrel over these hard sayings. So, why are they in the Bible?
Recently when reading through the Gospel of John, I was struck by a new way of looking at hard sayings. Yes, they cause stumbling and grumbling and quarreling. But precisely in doing so, they also offer a surprising invitation.
Not Exactly Seeker Sensitive
John 6 records the feeding of the five thousand. The story is thick with biblical echoes. Jesus feeds a large mass of people, at Passover, on a mountain, near a body of water, which he then miraculously crosses. Echoes of the story of the exodus are intended, and the crowds recognize them. They see the sign — miraculous bread — and conclude that Jesus is the Prophet, the one that Moses foretold (Deuteronomy 18:15–19; John 6:14).
After Jesus crosses the sea in the night, the crowds follow him the next day. Significantly, these people are “seeking Jesus” (John 6:24). Don’t miss this. These are Jesus-seekers. But Jesus knows their hearts. He knows many of these people are seeking him because they ate their fill of the loaves and want more.
What’s more, it becomes clear that the people want Jesus on their terms. They want to negotiate with him. “Give us a sign and we’ll believe in you. Give us magic bread from heaven and we will come to you. Be like Moses, who gave our ancestors manna in the wilderness” (see John 6:28–34).
Given Hard Words
But in the face of their demand for bread, Jesus gives them a hard saying. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Jesus doesn’t want to merely fill their bellies; he wants to satisfy their souls. And though these people have seen Jesus, they have not yet believed in him (John 6:36). That is, they’ve not yet come to him as the bread of life. And then Jesus describes how this coming to him happens. Election — the Father gives a people to the Son (John 6:37). Calling — those given to him then come to him. Perseverance — Jesus keeps those who come until the resurrection (John 6:38–40).
The people respond to this hard saying by grumbling (just like their fathers in the desert). Jesus is not multiplying magic bread but saying that he himself is the bread. In their grumbling, they stumble over the hard saying. “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph? We know his mom and dad. How can Joseph’s son be heavenly bread?” (see John 6:41–42).
Jesus answers their grumbling by elaborating on how people come to him. No one comes to Jesus unless the Father draws him to Jesus (John 6:44). And he doubles down on his identity. “I am the bread of life. . . . I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:48, 51).
Quarreling About the Hard Saying
After this, their grumbling turns to quarreling. They begin to dispute among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? What are we? Cannibals?” (see John 6:52). And again Jesus presses the hard saying. “You must eat my flesh. You must drink my blood. This is the only path to life. My flesh is true food; my blood is true drink. To eat me is to abide in me and I in you. Those who ate the manna still died; those who eat me will not” (see John 6:53–58).
Now, at this point, even Jesus’s disciples begin to grumble. “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?” But Jesus is not dissuaded. “Are you offended by these words? What if the Son of Man ascends to heaven? These words are spirit and life. But there are some of you who don’t see things that way; there are some of you who don’t believe” (see John 6:61–65).
Many Turn Back
At this, a number of his disciples turn back and stop following him. And so Jesus turns to the twelve and asks them, “Do you want to go away as well? Have the hard sayings driven you away?” (see John 6:66–67) And Peter, speaking on behalf of the rest, answers, “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” (John 6:68–69).
This is where the entire conversation has been leading. All along Jesus has known that there were some who were seeking him in order to get bread, and not because he is bread. The hard sayings were designed to reveal just this fact. And therefore, the hard sayings are, in one sense, a barrier to belief.
Yet in a deeper sense, the hard sayings are actually invitations. They call us to see past the gifts from Jesus to Jesus himself. Do we only want what he gives, or do we want him? The hard sayings call us to embrace the inestimable worth of Jesus. They force us to recognize that we are starving, and he alone is the bread of life.
The Christian faith is filled with its hard sayings. But if we come to Jesus as uniquely satisfying, if he is the bread of life to us, if we believe and have come to know that he is the Holy One of God, then, like Peter, even the hard sayings will not deter us. Jesus himself, as the living bread, will so satisfy our souls that, though we still may have questions about the hard sayings, we don’t turn aside. We continue to seek Jesus.
In other words, embracing Jesus despite the hard sayings is the mark of those who are truly seeking Jesus for Jesus.