A Bible passage not normally looked at is John 6:66 and the time the crowds tried to force Jesus’ hand and make him king by force, and not only did that not happen, but everything went sideways and by the end Jesus lost most of his followers. Hidden within this story is a powerful message for Christians today.
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. John 6:1-2
The biggest reason people followed Jesus wasn’t because of what he taught. In fact, most folks probably wished Jesus would stop talking, because every time he talked people got upset. People followed Jesus because of the miracles. Because he healed the sick. I mean, what’s not to love about free healthcare? So, one of the times when the crowds followed Jesus, Jesus decided to feed them:
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. John 6:10-11
This was such an impactful miracle that this is the only miracle that was recorded in all four eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Once the people realized what Jesus had just done, they responded exactly how you would expect:
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John 6:14-15
Remember, what the Jews wanted more than anything else was a political and military ruler that could defeat the Romans. They were ready to join his army, that’s why they tried to force him to become their king. Think about it: two of the biggest obstacles for fielding an army are how to feed it and how to replenish the troops. Well, Jesus just proved he could feed over 5000 fighting men off of one kid’s lunch box and all he’d been doing previously was healing the sick. This army would be unstoppable! It was perfect! All Jesus had to do was accept the kingship and do the one thing everyone wanted them to do.
But Jesus wouldn’t play ball. And it was so frustrating! I mean, all that potential, and it looked like (from the perspective of the crowd) that he was wasting it! Think about if you had a kid that was super smart, like a genius, I mean got a perfect score on the ACT, accepted to any Ivy League College, the world was in front of them. And what if they walked away and decided they wanted to pursue their passion for ceramics and make pottery. No offense kid, but you could literally be a rocket scientist, and you want to make pottery? Such wasted potential!
As things progressed, the crowds grew more frustrated. Again, the crowds literally wanted to make Jesus their king, and he disappeared. So they went after him.
Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. John 6:24-26
If they couldn’t make Jesus accept the kingship, the least he could do was hand out some more free food. I mean, that would just be rude to let a whole bunch of hungry people starve, wouldn’t it?
Jesus saw straight through them. They weren’t interested in the Kingdom of God, they just wanted a free meal. That ended up being a real sticking point between Jesus and crowds, because he performed legitimate signs and wonders to prove his divinity. But they weren’t interested in getting to know the Blessor so much as they wanted to blessings. The weren’t interested in the Giver, they just wanted the gifts.
They wanted to follow Jesus on their terms, they wanted Jesus to give them what they wanted. As Jesus continually reminded them, it doesn’t work like that. Jesus did not come to be a genie in a bottle who would grant magic wishes for anyone who said a magic prayer. Jesus came to do something brand new.
So, Jesus brings the conversation back on point:
Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” John 6:27
Jesus leverages their physical need (food) for a deeper, spiritual need. As much as our lives are consumed by what we eat everyday, we have a deeper need at the soul-level to know our Creator and be made right with Him. That’s what Jesus came to do, but the crowds couldn’t see past their own physical cravings and desires to see their deeper needs.
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” John 6:28-29
This was groundbreaking for the Jews. This was the something new that Jesus came to initiate. The entire Jewish religion was based on keeping the Law, on being made right with God based on what you did. Even today, all other religions install some sort of works based system for you to be forgiven or earn salvation or whatever. It’s all dependent upon what you can do.
Jesus initiated something brand new because he said from now on, the work of God was simply to believe in the one God sent: his son, Jesus. But again, even after this incredible truth bomb that just got dropped, the people didn’t see it. They tried to leverage some passive aggressive manipulation.
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” John 6:30-31
Now, they had just seen literally the feeding of the 5000, they were part of the 5000. So the whole “we need a sign” is just a thinly veiled attempt at manipulation. We don’t ever try and do that, do we? We don’t ever try and manipulate God or pray or give to the church because we really just want God to give us what we want, like a genie in a bottle, do we?
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” John 6:32-34
Alright, now we’re getting somewhere. Here Jesus is, on the record, going to keep the handouts going. The gravy train is open for business! Nope.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” John 6:35, 40-42
Now he’s just starting to be offensive. First, he keeps claiming to be God, which is downright blasphemy, but more important, he’s not making any more bread. I mean, come on Jesus, we’re hungry here, do your magic trick!
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, 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 them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. John 6:43, 51-56
Woah. Let’s just stop for a moment and unpack that for a moment. This statement actually caused a lot of confusion over the centuries. When the Romans first started to persecute the early Christians, they accused them of being cannibals because they said they were literally eating the flesh of Jesus.
Some parts of Christianity still hold that when you take the Lord’s Supper you’re literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christianity. Not only was this repulsive, this was literally forbidden for Jews. In Leviticus 17 the drinking of blood was expressly forbidden.
All they wanted was to make Jesus king, or if nothing else, they wanted a free meal. And what they got in return was blasphemous claims that Jesus came down from heaven and was the bread of life and that to be made right with God they had to drink his blood. Things got real weird, real quick.
I don’t believe Jesus was being literal here, he was using flesh and blood as a metaphor for believing in him, which he talked about earlier. But the bigger issue is that Jesus intentionally said this inflammatory language, knowing it would set the crowd off. Why? What was so wrong about handing out some more bread? What was wrong about becoming king?
Jesus wanted the chief priests, the Pharisees, and even the crowds to know definitively that he did not come to play by their rules or fulfill their own personal preferences and expectations. Jesus came to do something brand new, something that literally no one expected.
So why did Jesus use such graphic and inflammatory language? I think he used it to prove a powerful point. He wasn’t there to be their genie in a bottle and grant them all their wishes. But that message wasn’t getting through. Ladies, have you ever had a guy pursuing you that you had zero interest in, but for some reason he wasn’t getting that message? I mean, you tried being nice but that message wasn’t going through. He was like Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber, “what are my chances? 1 out of 100? More like 1 out of a million. So you’re telling me there’s a chance!” If you’ve ever had one of those guys, you had to ghost him, ignore him, shut him down, be harsh, or else he wouldn’t get the message. Same kind of thing going here with Jesus.
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, John 6:60-61
Now, basic crowd management would say: let them down easy. If I was one of his disciples I would have said, “Alright Jesus, let’s find the win-win here.” How can we all walk away from this happy? Can you meet them halfway? Jesus did not opt for that approach:
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. John 6:61-64, 66
Centuries ago when Christians put chapters and verses to the Bible to give us easier reference points, I’m convinced they made sure this statement was verse 66, John 6:66 (666). It was the moment, not just many of the crowd, but many of his disciples, turned away and no longer followed him. They were disillusioned. The next time we will see many of them will be in the crowd in Jerusalem shouting “crucify him!”
This message wasn’t any easier for the twelve disciples.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:67-69
I love Peter’s response! It wasn’t exactly “we’re with you Jesus!” It was more like, “where else are we supposed to go?” They probably didn’t like what Jesus was saying, they definitely didn’t understand all of it, but they could not deny that he was from God.
So they were there for the roller coaster, trying to hold on for dear life as this unexpected Messiah came to establish something brand new in the world, something that literally no one was asking for, but something that everyone needed.