In John 6:26ff, the Lord has an extended conversation with a large crowd of Jews. Some of the things Jesus says are easy to understand. He says that it is the will of the Father that all who believe in Him may have eternal life and that Jesus will raise the believer up on the last day (6:40). In 6:47 He says that everyone who believes has eternal life. The verb “has” is in the present tense, which means that eternal life is the possession of the believer at the moment of faith. It is not something the believer has to wait for in order to acquire later.
It is clear that in these verses Jesus guarantees eternal life to anybody who believes in Him for it. Such a promise and such words are certainly words of life. They give a life that will never end, and cannot be lost, to anybody who hears and believes them.
However, in this conversation Jesus also says some things that are more difficult to understand. But as the rest of the conversation makes clear, they are also words of life.
Eating the Bread from Heaven
After saying that He is the living bread that came down from heaven, Jesus tells the Jews that in order to have life they must eat His flesh and drink His blood (vv 51-53). The audience finds these words hard to comprehend. They recognize that Jesus cannot literally give His flesh for them to eat (v 52), and in verse 60 they say that what He just said is a “difficult statement.” They wonder who can understand it?
While many have seen an allusion to the Lord’s Supper in Jesus’ words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, this is not likely. When Jesus spoke these words the Lord’s Supper had not yet been instituted. It is clear from the passage that the Lord is using the phrases “to eat my flesh” and “to drink my blood” as metaphors for believing the words that He speaks. When one believes Jesus, it is as if they are “eating” Him by taking His words in.
In verse 63, Jesus makes it clear that He does not literally mean that one must eat His flesh and drink His blood. It is not the eating of His literal flesh or drinking His literal blood that gives life. Instead, it is the words of Christ that give life. In fact, He says that the literal flesh is of no profit.
In the context, Jesus is speaking about the gift of eternal life. When one believes in the promise of Christ for eternal life, he or she appropriates that gift, in the same way one would eat or drink something. The Jews who were listening to Jesus took His illustration too literally.
Eating Is Also a Metaphor for Abiding
It is tempting for a believer to look at John 6 and conclude that Jesus’ words do not have any ongoing relevance in one’s life because they have already appropriated the gift of eternal life. In this sense, he or she has already eaten the flesh of Christ and drunk His blood. The believer has a life that he or she cannot lose. Such a person has already learned that the words of Jesus are indeed life.
However, a closer look at the words of the Lord show they have a double significance. John hints at this by recording the Lord saying those who eat His flesh and drink His blood “abide” in Him (v 56).
For John, the abiding relationship the believer can have with the Lord involves more than simply receiving eternal life as a gift of God’s grace through faith. It involves growing in that life. The believer can experience life in an abundant way (John 10:10).
In the Upper Room, after Judas leaves, Jesus tells the believing disciples that if they love Him and keep His word both the Father and Jesus will make their “abode” with them (14:23). Later, He will tell them that if they “abide” in Him, they will experience answered prayer and bear much fruit (15:7-8).
Abiding in Christ, then, involves loving Him and keeping His words. This is something believers can do. If they do, they will experience eternal life in an abundant way.
John 6 supports this notion. Jesus tells those hearing His words that if they eat His flesh and drink His blood they will abide in Him. But, as we have already seen, eating His flesh and drinking His blood means to believe His words.
Jesus certainly spoke words that involved more than believing in Him for eternal life. He spent three years teaching the Twelve and often spoke of things that accompany eternal salvation.
The Lord’s Teachings Can Be Difficult
In John 6, Jesus speaks to mixed crowd that included unbelievers. The Lord also makes this clear in verse 64 by saying that “some” of the crowd did not believe. Many of these unbelievers quit following Him because His words were hard to understand.
But the crowd also included some believers. John 6 also tells us that the Twelve were a part of those who heard the words of Jesus (v 67). Among the Twelve was Peter, who was clearly a believer.
One can imagine Peter listening to the words of the Lord on this occasion. As is well known, the disciples, including Peter, often had a hard time understanding what the Lord taught them. In verse 67, the Lord asks Peter and the other eleven if they also will quit following Him.
From this verse we see that a believer can find the Lord’s teachings so difficult that he or she can choose to quit following Him. Such a decision would involve no longer listening to Him, trying to understand Him, or obeying the things He teaches.
If Peter had been completely up front with the Lord at this time, he no doubt would have said that he did not understand many of the things the Lord was teaching. John does not record if he did so. But John does record two things that Peter said.
First, Peter acknowledged that he and the other eleven had nowhere else to go. Second, Peter acknowledged that only Jesus had the words of eternal life (v 68).
Since Peter already had eternal life, he didn’t mean he would stay with Jesus to obtain salvation from hell. Peter is making a profound statement. The words of Jesus are life. This is true if they are telling an unbeliever to believe in Jesus for eternal life, or if they are telling a believer how to have abundant life.
When a believer reads and studies the words of the Lord, that believer is hearing words that can produce life. They are a source of life in the sense that when obeyed, they produce an abiding relationship with the Lord, where spiritual fruit is produced.
In verse 63, the Lord did not simply say that His words are life, but that they are also “spirit.” The Spirit of God uses the words of the Lord in the life of the believer to produce Christ likeness. This Spirit-produced obedience produces abundant life. Peter understands that the experience of true life could only be found by following Christ.
Words of Abundant Life
The words of our Lord are life. When a person believes in Him for eternal life they receive that wonderful gift.
However, His words keep giving. After we have believed, we can continue to “eat His flesh” and “drink His blood” because His words are spiritual food.
No doubt, some of His teachings are hard to understand and difficult to “swallow.” But, as we hear and obey through the power of the Spirit, we experience true life.
As believers we never get to the point where there is no more to learn, where there are things in our lives the Lord does not want to transform into His image, and where the Scriptures do not challenge us.
And, no doubt, we will find things that we do not understand or do not want to obey. But, if we will endure and allow these words to accomplish their work, we will find, like Peter, that Jesus’ words are the words of eternal life to all who accept them.