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Why Did the Disciples Leave?

Question: There is every evidence that Jesus was speaking literally in John 6. If Jesus were only speaking figuratively, how would you explain the fact that many of his followers left him? If the Jews misunderstood Him, He would have corrected them, being the perfect teacher. He then turned to the twelve disciples, and asked if they would leave too, knowing that this would be a pivotal teaching, and many would leave because they would not accept His words.

Answer: While it is true that the Jews understood Christ literally, it is not true that they understood correctly.

Whether Jesus was speaking literally or metaphorically, as He often did, can be determined from the text itself. A comparison between the following two parallel verses points to the correct interpretation; in effect Jesus explains how we can eat His flesh and drink His blood.

  • "Everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him at the last day" (v40).

  • "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (v54).

Who are those who "have eternal life"? Who are those whom Christ will raise up at the last day? Only those who eat His flesh and drink his blood (6:54). But how can a person eat the heavenly manna and partake of the benefits of His shed blood? The Lord explains that it is by seeing the Son and believing on Him (6:40). Our souls are nourished by God’s grace when we believe in the Lord Jesus.

However, the Jews would not believe on Him even though they had seen the miracles. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst (6:36). “But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe” (6:35-36).

They would not believe that Jesus is the Messiah and so they raised all sorts of objections. They were offended because Jesus claimed to come down from heaven -- they objected: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (6:42). Should the perfect teacher clarify their misconception? He did not! He insisted on His claims, and when they hardened their hearts, Jesus reiterated the same truth (on the necessity of believing in Him) in bold figures of consuming His flesh and blood (53-58). That was His usual way of dealing with unbelief. For instance, on another occasion, Jesus told the Jews: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19). The Jews took His words literally, and many months later they accused Him of that very same thing during the trial. Jesus never corrected them nor informed them that He was speaking metaphorically about His body and the resurrection rather than they physical temple in Jerusalem.

Elsewhere Jesus explained why He employed veiled speech. "That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them" (Mark 4:12). If someone rejects the clear teaching of Jesus, the metaphorical language of the Bible only serves to hide the glorious message of salvation. A frightening truth!

Jesus exposed the unbelieving hearts even of some of His followers. He answered their murmurings: “Does this offend you? What if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe” (6:61-64). Christ predicted His ascension to heaven, and by implication, He refuted their foolish idea of giving His physical body for ingestion. He explicitly states that His words should be understood spiritually rather than carnally, “The words that I speak to you are spirit.” Finally, He points to the root problem: unbelief! "There are some of you who do not believe." He who knows the heart, exposed the hypocrisy and hardness of these “disciples.” These were not innocent and honest truth-seekers. They were hardened unbelievers. It is no wonder that Jesus let them go.

Today Roman Catholics continue to agree with the Jewish misunderstanding of Christ's words. The apostles, however, rightly understood that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, and that we ought to believe in Him for eternal life. Peter says nothing about the dogma of transubstantiation, but affirms their belief in the person of Jesus Christ. "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God" (John 6:68, 69). Peter got the message!

The apostles understood that Jesus was teaching that they should believe in Him in order to have eternal life. Maybe the Lord will grant you the same understanding and give you the grace to really believe in Him for salvation.

Further reading

The Bread of Life

© Dr Joseph Mizzi