John 6:63, 68
These next two verses to be discussed are related, in some way, to the preceding Bread of Life discourse (vv. 22-59), though the precise relationship has proven difficult for commentators to determine. Verse 59 effectively serves as a conclusion to the discourse; and yet, without any other reference point, it would seem that verse 60 is referring back to the discourse (or a portion of it). The wording remains somewhat ambiguous:
“Then many out of his learners [i.e. disciples], (hav)ing heard, said, ‘This account [i.e. word/saying] is harsh [sklhro/$]—who is able to hear it?'”
There are two possibilities:
- Verses 60ff are part of the same historical tradition, occurring in the aftermath of the discourse (as recorded in vv. 22-59)
- The Gospel writer has joined to the discourse an entirely separate tradition, using the discourse, in the literary context of the narrative, as a way of demonstrating an example of Jesus’ teaching—i.e., the kinds of things he said which resulted in the sort of response described in vv. 60ff.
Most critical commentators would choose the second option, and there is much to be said in favor of it. In this particular instance, the view taken affects how one interprets the discourse—especially the eucharistic language and imagery in vv. 51-58. But, let us continue with the Jesus’ response to the disciples’ reaction:
“Does this trip you up? Then if you should look (and behold) the Son of Man stepping up (back to) where he was (at) the first(, what then)? The Spirit is the (thing) making (a)live, the flesh does not benefit anything! (and) the utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life.” (vv. 61b-63)
The logical connection and flow of these statements is rather difficult, and may possibly reflect separate sayings which have been brought together. The basic idea behind vv. 61b-62, as we have it, is relatively clear. If the disciples find Jesus’ teaching difficult (while he is present with them), how will they respond when he has left them and returned to the Father? The Christological language in v. 62 has, I think, led some commentators down the wrong track, as though Jesus were suggesting that it would be more difficult for the disciples to behold Jesus’ ascension in glory. Much more likely here is a foreshadowing of the kind of discussion Jesus will have with his (close) disciples in the Last Discourse, where he speaks at length of his departure and return to the Father. The mention of the Spirit in v. 63 would seem to confirm this. His statement here regarding the Spirit may be seen as preparatory for the later Discourse. Let us examine verse 63 in more detail.
Whether or not this verse ultimately derives from separate sayings, there certainly are two distinct statements being made by Jesus:
- “The Spirit is the (thing) making (a)live, the flesh does not benefit anything”
- “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life”
The first statement provides a clear contrast—between the Spirit (pneu=ma) and the flesh (sa/rc). Such a dualistic contrast is familiar from Paul’s letters, where he uses it repeatedly—cf. especially Romans 8:4-6ff; Gal 3:3; 4:29; 5:16-17; 6:8; Phil 3:3. It is much less common in the Johannine writings, but may be found in Jn 3:6 (cf. the prior note), and a negative connotation to the term “flesh”, as something contrary or inferior to God, is present in 8:15 and 1 John 2:16. Usually, this negative aspect is expressed by “(the) world” (ko/smo$). Here, in verse 63, the contrast is especially pronounced—not only does the flesh not give life, but it offers no benefit at all! This harsh statement must be understood properly, in terms of the comparison of the flesh with the Spirit. Compared with the Spirit, which gives everything (Life), the flesh offers nothing.
A difficult point of interpretation is whether (or in what sense) this statement should be applied to the Bread of Life discourse, and the apparent eucharistic allusions in vv. 51-58. I have addressed this question in the most recent Saturday series post.
The second statement provides the theme for this series of notes: “The utterances which I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life”. Again, there is some difficulty of interpretation here; consider the possible ways this may be understood:
- Spirit and (divine, eternal) Life are conveyed to believers through Jesus’ words
- This giving of “Spirit and Life” is parallel to the eucharistic (symbolic) act of eating/drinking the flesh/blood of Jesus—two aspects of the same basic idea
- Jesus’ spoken words, i.e. his teaching, reflect part (or an aspect) of the Spirit (and Life) which he gives to believers
- Trust in Jesus, through his words, will result in believers obtaining the Spirit and (eternal) Life
In my view, the statement is fundamentally Christological. Since Jesus is the Son (of God) sent by the Father, and since God the Father (who is Spirit, 4:24) gives the Spirit to Jesus, to say that Jesus gives the Spirit (3:34) to believers means that he conveys to believers everything that the Father is. This involves both the work, and the very presence, of Jesus—wherever he is, and whatever he does (or speaks), the Spirit of God is made manifest to those who trust in him. Jesus’ utterances are not merely the sayings and teachings recorded in the Gospel, but a manifestation of the life-giving, creative power, given to him by the Father. This interpretation will, I believe, be confirmed as we explore the remainder of the relevant passages in the Gospel (and First Letter) of John.
Jesus’ statements in vv. 61-63 are part of a larger narrative section; and here, beginning with verse 64, there is greater likelihood that a separate historical tradition has been joined—one which has important parallels with the Synoptic Tradition. Verses 64-71 deal specifically with the Twelve disciples, and the transition to this in v. 64 appears rather abruptly. The key saying by Jesus comes in verse 65:
“Through this [i.e. for this reason] I have said to you that no one is able to come toward me if it were not given to him out of [i.e. from] the Father”
In the narrative context, this relates back to vv. 37-40, and especially vv. 44-45, of the discourse, though it is also possible that similar sayings by Jesus were given (and circulated) separately, to the same effect. At any rate, this motif of election—of the disciples (believers) being given to Jesus by God the Father—starts to come into greater prominence at this point in the Gospel. As if in response to this declaration, we read that “many of his learners [i.e. disciples] went away, into the (place)s in the back, and no longer walked about with him”. This takes things a step further from the grumbling reaction in vv. 60-61; now many disciples drew back and no longer followed Jesus closely. What comes next in the narrative serves as a parallel, of sorts, with the confession of Peter in the Synoptic Tradition—note:
- A direct and personal question (challenge) by Jesus to his close disciples:
“And who do you count/consider me to be?” (Mk 8:30a par)
“You do not also wish to lead (yourselves) under [i.e. go back/away] (do you)?” (Jn 6:67)
- To which Peter is the one who responds with a declaration of faith:
“You are the Anointed One (of God)” (Mk 8:30b par)
“…we have trusted and have known that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68b)
Just prior to this confession, in John’s account, Peter makes the following statement, in answer to Jesus’ question:
“Lord, to whom will we go away? You hold (the) utterances of Life of the Age” (v. 68a)
The last portion is made up of four Greek words which should now be familiar to you in studying the Gospel throughout this series:
- r(h/mata “utterances”, i.e. spoken words, as in v. 63 (above)—cf. also 3:34; 5:47; 8:47; 10:21; 12:47-48; 14:7; 17:8.
- zwh=$ “of Life”—the two words being in a genitival relationship, “utterances of life”, as in “bread of life” (vv. 35, 48), “light of life” (8:12), “resurrection of life” (5:29). This divine, eternal Life characterizes Jesus’ utterances—they belong to Life.
- ai)wni/ou “of the Age”—the latest of many such occurrences of this adjective in the expression zwh/ ai)w/nio$ (“Life of the Age”). It reflects the idea of the divine, blessed Life which the righteous were though to inherit (and share with God) at the end-time, following the resurrection and Judgment. In the Johannine discourses, it tends to be used in the sense of the Life which believers in Jesus possess (“hold”) now, in the present, through trust in him—i.e. “realized” eschatology. The expression is typically translated as “eternal life”.
- e&xei$ “you hold”—as indicated above, Jesus repeatedly states that those who trust in him hold eternal life. Peter here is expressing the belief that this Life comes from Jesus, who holds it, having himself received it from God the Father (cf. 5:26, etc).
While this language certainly reflects that of the Johannine discourses, it is interesting to see the way that it has developed here out of a core historical tradition, related to the calling of the Twelve and the betrayal of Judas. This framework has been chosen and utilized by the Gospel writer as a way to emphasize Jesus’ teaching on faith and discipleship, much as the tradition of Judas’ betrayal at the Last Supper has been used in the Gospel of Luke to introduce teaching of Jesus (cf. Lk 22:21-30). In the Johannine narrative, Judas has a special place in the “Last Supper” scene—his departure marks the moment when “the devil” has left, and only Jesus’ true disciples remain (13:2, 21-30; cp. 6:64, 70-71). It is at this point that the great Last Discourse can begin (13:31ff).