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Lesson 37: The Antidote to Spiritual Defection, Part 1 (John 6:60-71)

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December 1, 2013

If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you’ve known people who professed faith in Christ, who seemed to follow Him for some time, but then they fell away. In some cases, they have even served in the ministry. I’ve known pastors, including the pastor who baptized me, who have left the ministry, turned away from the Lord, and lived as unbelievers.

Often, the cause of spiritual defection is moral failure, as it was with my former pastor. In other cases, the defection may be due to unresolved doubts or unanswered hard questions about the Bible, such as: How do you resolve the seeming contradictions in the Bible? How can you reconcile the creation account with modern science? How can a loving and powerful God permit all the evil that goes on in the world? If God loves everyone, why doesn’t He let them all hear the gospel? If God is sovereign, then aren’t we just a bunch of robots with no free will? We could go on and on with the difficult issues that cause some to defect from the faith.

But let’s bring it a little closer to home: If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you have faced difficult issues that have challenged your faith. Maybe it was some of the hard questions that I just mentioned. Or, maybe you prayed for something that seemed to be in God’s will and for His glory, but He did not answer favorably. Perhaps you trusted some promise in the Bible, but it didn’t work out the way that you had expected. Maybe you’ve had to suffer some illness that has greatly hindered your ability to serve the Lord. Perhaps a spouse or Christian friend betrayed you. Maybe your children, whom you love sacrificially and taught God’s ways, have rejected both God and you.

How do you handle these kinds of hard trials and disappointments? What do you do when those you love turn away from Christ? In short, how do you persevere in your faith when you encounter things in the Bible or in your own experience that don’t make sense? What is the antidote to spiritual defection?

Our text reports the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding the 5,000 and His discourse in the synagogue in Capernaum on being the bread of life (6:60): “Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’” Jesus’ reply to their grumbling (in 6:61-65) did not placate them (6:66): “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” Also, John twice (6:64, 70-71) mentions Judas, one of the twelve, who would soon betray Jesus. So there were many spiritual defections among those who had professed to be disciples of Jesus, including Judas.

But in contrast, when Jesus asks the twelve (6:67), “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Peter gives a great reply (6:68-69), “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” So we have here the antidote to spiritual defection:

Persevering faith in God’s Word and in God’s Son is the antidote to spiritual defection.

In Hebrews 10:36, the writer tells his readers, who were enduring severe trials as Christians and were tempted to go back to Judaism, “You have need of endurance.” Then he proceeds to give them an entire chapter that shows how the saints of old endured by faith. We need faith in God’s Word and faith in His Son if we want to persevere and not fall away. In this message, I can only deal with faith in God’s Word. We’ll look at faith in God’s Son next time.

1. Persevering faith in God’s Word is the antidote to spiritual defection.

But to begin, we need to acknowledge:

A. There are hard truths in God’s Word that must be submitted to, even if you don’t understand or like them.

The Jews in John 6 had eaten the miraculous bread and fish. As a result, they sought out Jesus after He returned to Capernaum, but they sought Him for the wrong reason. They wanted a political Messiah who would provide freedom from Rome’s yoke, peace, and prosperity. But they stumbled over Jesus’ claim that He was the bread of life that came down out of heaven (6:35, 41). They knew Him as the young man that grew up in Nazareth, the son of Joseph and Mary. So they couldn’t accept His claim to have come down out of heaven.

Jesus confronted their grumbling and told them that they were unable to come to Him unless the Father drew them (6:43-44). He proceeded to emphasize repeatedly that He was the bread out of heaven and that He would give His flesh for the life of the world (6:48-51). But this caused more grumbling (6:52): “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” In response (6:53-58), Jesus didn’t back off, but in graphic language He told them over and over that they must not only eat His flesh, but also drink His blood to have eternal life.

This led to the response of many of His disciples (6:60), “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” As good Jews, they were grossed out over the thought of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood. They thought that their Jewish religion and heritage were good enough to commend them to God. They didn’t see their need for a Savior from sin, who had to die as their Passover lamb. So they grumbled. But Jesus didn’t back off. He was saying, “You must trust in My sacrificial death on your behalf.”

Note that they didn’t come to Jesus with teachable hearts, saying, “Lord, we’re confused. Can you help us understand?” Rather, John says (6:61) that Jesus was conscious that they were grumbling at His teaching, implying that it was among themselves. But He doesn’t soften His earlier statements or explain things to them, because they didn’t have teachable hearts, seeking to understand these truths that they didn’t like so that they could obey. Rather, they were sitting in judgment on Jesus: “He’s that kid from Nazareth, whose parents we know! How can He gross us out with all this talk about eating His flesh and drinking His blood? Our views are what normal people think; it’s Jesus who is crazy!”

In the same way, I’ve seen people who get offended by something that I say, but they never come and talk with me to get the matter cleared up. They don’t want to change their minds or learn new things from God’s Word. They don’t have a teachable heart in submission to God’s Word. Rather, they sit in judgment on what they heard, leave, and go find a pastor who agrees with them.

If you come to God’s Word with that kind of attitude, you won’t grow in your walk with God. You may not like what the Bible says about God sovereignly choosing some for salvation and passing over others, but Jesus repeatedly teaches that in this chapter and it’s taught from Genesis to Revelation. The starting place for growing in the Lord when His Word confronts you with things you don’t like is to humble your heart before the Lord and ask Him for understanding. If you reject it because you don’t like it, you’re sitting in judgment on God’s Word and you won’t grow.

This applies to many difficult areas where the Bible goes against our culture or against our preferences: the role of women in the home and in the church; homosexuality; sexual purity; divorce; hell; etc. But if we accept only the parts of the Bible that fit with what we like, then we’re not following Jesus as Lord, but rather ourselves as lord. We’re just using certain parts of the Bible that we agree with to support our own biases. To be a Christian is to submit to the teachings of Jesus and Jesus believed in God’s Word as truth (John 17:17). But, how do we submit to hard truths?

B. To submit to hard truths, we must be born of the Spirit.

In 6:63, Jesus says to these fair-weather disciples, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Jesus here confronts the root problem of these grumblers: They were not born again. Jesus’ opening words to Nicodemus were (3:3), “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In other words, “All your religious learning and religious activities are incapable of getting you into heaven. You need the new birth.” Jesus explains further (3:6): “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

In 6:63, Jesus is teaching the same thing: “The Holy Spirit imparts life to dead sinners. Human religious effort will not get you into heaven. Apart from the new birth, you can never understand why it is necessary to eat My flesh and drink My blood.” As we saw in our last study, eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood mean that we must trust His sacrificial death on our behalf as the only way to have eternal life. But Jesus confronts these fair-weather followers (6:64), “But there are some of you who do not believe.” The Spirit had not given them new life and so they did not believe.

The crowd thought that Jesus’ words were hard (6:60), but actually, He says (6:63), His words “are spirit and are life.” This means (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 302) that His words “are the product of the life-giving Spirit,” and “rightly understood,” Jesus’ words in the discourse that He just gave are the source of life for the one who believes. Carson adds, “One cannot feed on Christ without feeding on Christ’s words, for truly believing Jesus cannot be separated from truly believing Jesus’ words (5:46-47).” The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to impart new life to sinners so that they can understand it (James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23; 1 Cor. 2:14).

A. W. Pink (Exposition of John, on monergism.com) points out the balance in 6:63-64: “It is the Spirit who gives life,” points to God’s sovereignty. He must impart new life to us. But, “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” are addressed to human responsibility: we must believe Jesus’ words, as 6:64 shows: “But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus was pressing on these superficial disciples the need to truly believe in Him.

In 6:64, John adds, “For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him.” This anticipates 6:70-71, “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’ Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.” The defection of these “disciples” and of Judas shows us how hard the human heart is and how desperately we need God’s sovereign grace and the new birth. These disciples had seen Jesus and yet did not believe (6:36). Jesus had chosen Judas as an apostle. He was with Jesus for three years. He saw His miracles and heard His teaching. He was friends with the other apostles, with whom he could discuss the things of God. He went out on a mission and saw God work miracles through him. Yet he did not believe and he was lost!

C. To submit to hard truths, we often must go against our cultural and religious backgrounds by confronting our preconceived ideas.

These superficial disciples were grumbling because they could not imagine a Messiah who would give His flesh for the life of the world (6:51). Their view of Messiah was that He would conquer Israel’s enemies and usher in an age of peace and prosperity, not that He would die. Also, “the world” meant Gentiles, and they didn’t like the idea of Messiah including those “dogs” in the kingdom! And their religion said that it was abominable to drink blood, but this carpenter from Nazareth who claimed to have come down from heaven was saying that to have eternal life, they needed to eat His flesh and drink His blood. Wasn’t being a good Jew enough to get them into heaven? So all of these things confronted their culture and religion and went against their preconceived ideas of Messiah and His kingdom.

Jesus asked these unbelieving “disciples” (6:62), “What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?” He was confronting their mistaken expectations. They thought that the Messiah would remain forever to reign (12:34). But here Jesus was talking about giving His flesh and drinking His blood. Later, He talked about being lifted up (12:32). After the cross, He would be raised from the dead and ascend again into heaven.

Just before His ascension, even His loyal disciples asked (Acts 1:6), “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” They still thought that He might set up His earthly kingdom at that time. They needed to confront their preconceived ideas and submit to God’s plan for Jesus to ascend to the Father and to return to reign at a later time.

I think that in part, wrong expectations about Jesus were why Judas betrayed Jesus. At first, he thought that Jesus would set up His earthly kingdom and he (Judas) would be one of the top officials in that reign. He liked that idea. He could get into sitting on one of the twelve thrones of Israel, reigning with Jesus (Matt. 19:28). But to his alarm, Jesus seemed fixated on dying! That didn’t fit Judas’ vision for the future!

When we begin to follow Christ, most of us have many wrong expectations and preconceived ideas about Him and the Christian life. Some of those ideas come from our cultural or religious backgrounds. Some may come from the “pitch” we heard for the gospel: “Come to Jesus and He will give you peace, joy, and an abundant life.” While that statement is true, it may not be true in the sense that we envisioned. He may give us peace, joy, and an abundant life in a prison cell where we are tortured and eventually killed because of our faith. Ask John the Baptist or the pastor in prison in Iran about that “abundant life”!

Thus, we’ve acknowledged that there are hard truths in God’s Word that we need to submit to. To submit to them, we need the new birth from the Holy Spirit. And, we often must go against our cultural and religious backgrounds by confronting our preconceived ideas.

D. To submit to hard truths, we must accept that God is sovereign, even over evil and unbelief.

Jesus again brings up to these unbelieving “disciples” the truth that He stated in 6:44, which was also implicit in 6:37. He says (6:65), “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” As we saw when we studied 6:37 & 44, each time that He states this truth, it’s in response to unbelief or skepticism. In 6:36, He tells His critics, “You have seen Me, and yet do not believe.” Then He immediately adds (6:37), “All that the Father has given Me will come to Me.” In 6:43, Jesus confronts their grumbling about Him and then adds (6:44), “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws Him.” Here, Jesus again confronts their unbelief (6:64) and then adds (6:65), “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” Then, in 6:70 Jesus again mentions His sovereignty in choosing the twelve in the face of Judas’ impending betrayal.

What’s the point of this repeated cycle of unbelief countered by God’s sovereignty? As I explained when we studied 6:37-40, Jesus is showing us that we can take comfort in God’s sovereignty even over the forces of evil and unbelief. If you’re not careful, the spiritual defection of your close friends or loved ones can be contagious. You can easily start thinking, “If he was such a strong Christian and he fell away, maybe I should re-examine my faith.” Or, if evil people do bad things to you, you can begin to wonder, “Where is the sovereign and loving God? Why didn’t He protect me from their evil deeds?” (See Matt. 11:2-3.)

But Jesus shows repeatedly in this chapter that even when people who saw His miracles and heard His teaching reject Him, it has not thwarted God’s sovereign plan in the slightest. The flaky disciples turned away from Jesus because God had not drawn them or granted for them to come to Him (6:44, 65). Judas, one of the twelve, was chosen as an apostle even though Jesus knew from the beginning that he would betray Him (6:64).

So even if difficult things happen to you, even if close friends betray you or turn away from the Lord, God is still the sovereign God “who works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph. 1:11). He still “does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth; and no one can ward off His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” (Dan. 4:35). You can persevere in faith when you accept that God is sovereign, even over evil and unbelieving people. And yet they are responsible for their unbelief and will come under God’s judgment if they don’t repent.

E. When you submit in faith to the hard truths of God’s Word, you gain the foundation for certain knowledge.

In the face of this widespread defection by these professed followers, Jesus turns to the twelve and asks (6:67), “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Wow, what a question! The way the question is stated indicates that Jesus did not expect them to say, “Yes, we’re out of here, too!” He said it to test their faith.

Peter, speaking for the group, gives the great confession (6:68-69), “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” We need to wait until next week to look more closely at this confession. But for now, I want to look at the part where he says, “We have believed and have come to know.” The terms are roughly synonymous, but the order is important. First, we believe and then we come to know.

The world says, “Seeing is believing,” but God’s Word tells us, “Believing is the way to seeing.” Hebrews 11:3 affirms, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” Faith yields understanding, or knowledge.

Faith is not a blind leap in the dark, because our faith is based on God’s testimony to His Son through trustworthy eyewitnesses. But this means that you will never attain complete knowledge apart from believing. The main reason people do not believe in Christ is not because they have intellectual problems with God or the Bible, even though they claim that’s the reason. They do not believe because they love their sin and they don’t want to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s only after we believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord that we will come to the full assurance of knowing that He is the Holy One of God.

Conclusion

Next time we’ll look at persevering faith in God’s Son as the antidote to spiritual defection. But for now, note that there are three groups represented in our text: (1) There are those who were initially interested in Jesus and followed Him until He started teaching some things that they didn’t like. Then they defected. (2) There are those, represented by Judas, who seem fully committed to Jesus. Judas kept up such a good front that the other disciples did not suspect that he was the betrayer. But his life ended in tragic rejection of Christ. (3) There are those, like Peter, who submit with persevering faith even to the hard teachings, because they know who Jesus really is and they’re committed to follow Him.

Which group are you in? Your perseverance unto eternal life depends on being in that third group. Make sure that your faith is in God’s Word and in His Son!

[Next week: Part 2]

Application Questions

  1. How does spiritual defection fit in with the perseverance of the saints? Can true Christians lose their salvation?
  2. Note that Jesus not only tolerated the truth of God’s sovereignty; He rejoiced greatly in it (Luke 10:21-22). How can we develop the same attitude toward difficult truths?
  3. What are some of the hard truths in the Bible that run counter to our culture? How can we identify and embrace these truths?
  4. What Scriptures support that God is sovereign over evil and yet not responsible in any way for it?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Christian Life, Christology, Failure, Faith