5 “Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.” 6 The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
— Psalm 12:5–6 —
In John 6, we have series of questions and answers that proceed from ostensible faith to certain unbelief. Put differently, those who first sought Jesus, because they ate of his bread, come to find out that hardened against God as they they have no appetite for Christ—only a hunger for what he might give them!
Meanwhile, as Jesus explains how anyone may come to him, we learn a great deal about Jesus and the wise judgments of God. Indeed, as John writes up the events taking place around the Sea of Galilee and then in synagogue at Capernaum, John 6 shows us more clearly who Jesus is and how the Word of God made flesh fulfills every portion of God’s Word.
In what follows, I want to begin with some basic observations on the text, and then move to some more in-depth discussions about intra-biblical allusions (i.e., how John may use the Old Testament), with some final conclusions about the way Jesus’s words prove the purity of God’s judgments. In the end, this will show us again how wise God is and why, in a passage that esteems the doctrine of unconditional election we can see the goodness God’s judgment upon those who are not elect.
To start, here are seven basic observations about John 6:22–69.
First, the scene begins on a new day (v. 22), when the crowds seek Jesus (vv. 22–24). It ends when the crowds disperse and Jesus addresses his disciples (vv. 66–69).
Second, John begin and ends his section with a focus on the disciples. “Disciples” are mentioned three times in vv. 22–24; three times in vv. 60–69; and not once in between.
Third, John orders this section by seven “speeches,” where the crowds speak and Jesus responds. This arrangement can be seen in the following outline of the passage, and the full text is at the bottom.
Introduction (vv. 22–24)
 Rabbi, when did you come . . .? (v. 25)
 What must we do . . . ? (v. 28)
 What work do you perform . . . ? (v. 30)
[X] Sir, Give us this bread!! (v. 34)
 Grumbling . . . Is not this Joseph’s son? (v. 41)
 Disputing . . . how can this man give us his flesh to eat? (v. 52)
This is a hard saying, who can listen to it? (v. 60)
Conclusion (vv. 66–69)
Fourth, there is an apparent logic to the order. In the seven statements, we find a three-one-three pattern. The first three speeches appear to be earnest questions (vv. 26, 28, 30). The fourth and middle speech (the only statement) articulates the need and desire of the day—bread!! (v. 34). But the last three questions take a different turn, as the crowds (now Jews, see vv. 41, 52) show their contempt for Jesus’s offer.
So fifth, the second set of questions is more intensive and oppositional, as each question is coupled with “grumbling” (v. 41), “disputing” (v. 52), and the statement “this is a hard saying” (v. 60).
Sixth, the conclusion (vv. 66–69) is marked off from the seventh speech by means of declaring Jesus knowledge of the crowd in front of him (v. 64) and Jesus final assessment (v. 65). Additionally, the seventh speech is marked off from the sixth by means of the narrator’s comment that this event took place in the synagogue (v. 59). In short, John is doing all he can to highlight the seventh speech and the conclusion.
Seventh, therefore, the seventh speech is the climactic moment when Jesus concludes that no on can come to him, believe on him, or feed on his flesh unless the Father draws them (v. 65).
Theological and Biblical-Theological Results
When we look at this whole section together, a number of interpretive results emerge. Let me start with three theological results, and then offer three results that come from reading John 6 with the whole Bible.
First, the two sets of three questions show what Jesus knew all along (v. 64)—that those seeking him were doing so with wrong motives. The whole narrative exposes the condition of those who are seeking him. Indeed, in the world there are false believers (John 2:23–25) and Jesus intends to show the difference between true faith and false faith. Thus, we should see how this passage challenges unbelievers and draw a line between true and false disciples.
Second, there is a difference between disciples and children of God. While there are disciples who remain with Jesus, many others go away (v. 66). Accordingly, disciples (i.e., followers) may or may not (in this instance) be born again. Jesus goal is to find and to bring to life the children of God. And in this case, he does that by teaching them about the bread of life. Those who believe this hard saying, these are the true children of God. Those who are offended are not.
Third, the deciding factor in faith is God’s sovereign grace—i.e., the Father’s election (vv. 35–37, 44, 65), the Son’s instruction (v. 45), and the Spirit’s gift of life (v. 63). In multiple places, we see that Jesus says that those whom the Father gave him (v. 37), those whom the Father draws (v. 44), and those who have eternal life (v. 47) by the Spirit (v. 63), these are the ones who believe. Thus, Jesus words are meant to divide the audience into believers and non-believers, and to secure the salvation of God’s elect. In this way, the dividing line in John 6—and in all places and times—is ultimately decided by God, not man.
Yet, this clear teaching of God’s election, with the result that non-elect, unbelievers are sentenced to judgment, this can pose questions of God’s justice. How can God hold accountable those who were never chosen by God? The most explicit answer to that question is found in Romans 9, but Paul’s words are not the only place where an answer is given. I believe, that Jesus’s seven-fold speech is another way, we see the patience and wisdom and goodness of God in judging unbelievers for their evil, unbelieving hearts. But to see this, we need to widen our gaze and understand how the number seven plays an important role in John’s Gospel. Consider three things.
First, the number of sections is hardly accidental. Already, in John 1–2, we have observed the way John orders events into seven days. For instance, the wedding at Cana, which occurred on the third day (John 2:1) was actually the seventh day (see John 1:19, 29, 35, 43). Thus, in keeping with the creation themes of the Prologue, John continues to use creation (and its six days leading to Sabbath) as a means by which he organizes his Gospel and communicates his message.
Second, the rejection of Jesus on the seventh speech, suggests another way that the Jews refuse the Sabbath. Already in John 5, Jesus condemns the leaders in Jerusalem for their refusal to find Sabbath rest in him. Now again, it is intriguing that the rejection of Jesus comes after the seventh speech. Instead of resting in and enjoying the bread of life offered by Jesus, these disciples have hardened their hearts against hime, just like the Israelites of old—some of whom preferred to collect manna for themselves on the Sabbath, than to trust in God (see Exod. 16:27–30).
Third, there may be one more reason why seven speeches are employed here, and it has to do with the judgment offered by Jesus. In the context of John 6, it is important to see that Jesus’s offer of the bread of life comes in a section where the major result is judgment, not salvation. Remarkably, he offers salvation (i.e., eternal life) but most of his followers refuse. Thus, inviting judgment. And knowing that judgment is a theme of the chapter and that the whole witness of John’s Gospel is judicial (i.e., a series of court room scenes spread across Israel), it invites us to see John 6 in light of the Psalm 12:6—a passage that highlights God’s perfect judgment.
What Psalm 12:6 Tells Us About God’s Judgment in John 6
Psalm 12 is a psalm where the Lord promises to arise in order to defend the needy against the wicked. Indeed, if we read in Psalm 12 in the context of Psalm 3–14, as I think we should, this is a psalm that answers the calls for God to rise up and judge the wicked (see Pss. 9:19 and 10:12). With that background in view and with God’s rising judgment in the foreground (v. 5), we find these words in verse 6: “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.”
Most of the time, Psalm 12:6 gets read in isolation and added to the list of proof texts for the inerrancy of God’s Word (i.e. the Bible). There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but in context, the purity of God’s word, as compared to words purified in a fire, has to do with God’s impending judgment. And it is a glorious truth that when God pours out his wrath and separates the wicked from the faithful, he does so at the perfect time and only after his words have been refined in the fire. Thus, I am inclined to read John 6 with Psalm 12:6 in view. Here’s why.
Jesus, as God, is coming to judge (see John 2) and in his judgment, he offers seven speech-acts in John 6, which result in the separation of true disciples from false. Remarkably, John 6 follows a narrative arc which shows how ostensible believers (in John 6:22–34) are actually not true believers at all. But such a judicial conclusion takes work to prove.
If we only we had John 6:22–40, we would not be able to see God’s reason for judging these disciples. But by the end of verse 65, it is clear. These grumbling, argumentative, hard-hearted disciples are not believers at all. What appeared to be good fruit at first—seeking Jesus, asking questions, and desiring his bread—has been proven false. And thus, Jesus’s judgment is just.
To be sure, there could be individuals in this unbelieving group who would later believer. Such is the testimony of Jesus’s brothers in John 7. But for now, we can see that John is showing how Jesus judges justly and how his words of judgment are pure words, refined seven times. Before judging the non-elect, it will be proven to all, that the reason they refused God’s offer of salvation was not a lack of grace in God. Instead, by offering the gospel (i.e., the bread of life) to the world (John 6:51), Jesus is showing how God’s good news functions to confirm unbelief in those who are not drawn to Jesus by the Father.
Indeed, it is not for lack of Christ’s words that these disciples depart. It not because of anything faulty in God. By the end of John 6, it is apparent that the judgment of God has been purified seven times. And though the Gospel is far from over, Jesus’s patient and wise approach reveals how Christ’s judgment will go.
Letting the Text Speak
All in all, by paying careful attention to the details of John 6 (the literary structure) and reading it in the contexts of John’s Gospel (the epochal context) and then with Psalm 12 (the canonical horizon), we arrive at a better understanding of John, Jesus, and the perfection of God’s judgment. Indeed, by considering how John writes this chapter, and how Jesus speaks to his followers, and how all of Scripture presents the patience of God as a proving ground for his final judgment, we who believe are given greater confidence in God’s Word and the pure words of his judgment.
Graciously, these words will bring salvation to all whom the Father draws, even as they perfectly mete out punishment on all who refuse his words.
For us, let us be those who listen to the words of Christ, so that we can come and feed on Christ, the Word made flesh.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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|Intro||22 On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.|
|Crowds’ Questions||Jesus’s Answers|
|1||25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”||26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”|
|2||28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”||29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”|
|3||30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ”||32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”|
|X||34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”||35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”|
|1 ||41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”||43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to 6me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.”|
|2 ||52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”||53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”|
|59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
|3 ||60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”||61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”|
|Closing||66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”