The Bread of Heaven, Part 2 – The How and the Who of Salvation, John 6:41-51, 6/24/12

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Jun 242012
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman, Faith Presbyterian Church

 

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’

 

Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’  (John 6:41-51, NRSV)

 

 

Nobody I know learns the really important truths in life after hearing them presented just one time.  Those of you who are parents, have you ever had to tell your kids the same thing over and over again before they finally get it?  If you’re a teacher, do you only cover a key concept in class one time and expect your students to grasp it right away?  How much easier would things have gone for me if I could have learned the important truths of life the first time I heard them?  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  And I doubt you did either.

 

Jesus is a master teacher.  He is the master teacher.  He knows what it takes for people to embrace and receive the truth, the life-saving message, he came to bring.  For one thing, he knows that few, if any of us, get it the first time around.[1]  That’s why as you read through the Gospel story you begin to notice how Jesus comes back, time and time again, to the central claims of his message.

 

The passage we just read is a great example of this.  Instead of moving on to chapter two of the textbook, Jesus is reviewing again the foundational material in chapter one.  This is the way he summarizes it in verse 47, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes [this] has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.”  If I’ve told you once I’ve told you a thousand times, I am the bread of life.

 

Over the past number of weeks we have covered this central message of Jesus’ teaching innumerable times.  Let me summarize it here for you this morning.  This is the message of the Gospel as clearly as I can put it.

 

God’s salvation is available to anyone in the world.  Anyone who trusts God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as Lord and Savior receives the grace extended to us all through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.  This is the only way we can be saved because there is no other means, other than the grace of Christ, by which we receive forgiveness for the sin in our lives which separates us from God and leads to death.

 

This is the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  He summarized this way, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

 

So here’s the question, do you believe this to be true?  Do you believe that people in this world will truly be lost in the end (and are, in fact, now lost) without Christ?  Do you believe that this message does not only have important, but infinite implications for every person who has ever lived?  Do you believe this?

 

Some people do.  Some believe this with all their heart.  Some people do not.  Many people do not.  Other people aren’t sure.  They believe parts of it, but struggle to accept other parts.

 

To some extent, and at some point, I think all of us struggle to fully believe and embrace this message.  And when we do there are usually two main questions we find ourselves asking.  First we ask, How?  Then we ask, Who?  This morning, let’s take each of these questions in turn.

 

First, How?

 

How is it possible that the salvation of the entire human race depends on one man who lived such a short life such a long time ago in such a remote corner of the world?

 

Jesus was a poor Jewish carpenter turned itinerate preacher.  How is it possible that his brutal execution on a Roman cross in or around the year 30 A.D. became the means by which the love and grace of God was given to the whole world?  And how is it that this one solitary event has become the necessary means of salvation for all people, for the poor Buddhist peasant in China, as much as it is for the Wall Street broker in New York City, as much as it is for the aborigine living isolated in the bush country of Australia, as much as it is for the Muslim oil sheik living in his palace in Saudi Arabia?

 

And if this is the only path of salvation for all these people, what does that say about all the other religions paths of salvation upon which people have depended down through history and all across the world?

 

Don’t you ever ask these questions?  How?

 

Now, most everybody, Christians and non-Christians alike, believes that this man, Jesus of Nazareth, actually existed.  The historical evidence confirming that Jesus walked the earth is simply too strong to deny.  All major religions of the world acknowledge Jesus’ life and most even go as far as to call him a great prophet or a wise teacher.  They stop short, however, of calling Jesus God.  And they certainly do not believe that salvation only comes through Jesus.

 

So we ask again, How?  How could the salvation of the entire world depend upon this one man?

 

You know, the Jews in the crowd that day ask the very same question.  “This man is the bread of heaven?” they asked one another.  “How can that be?  It’s Jesus, Joseph’s boy.  We know his family.  We remember when his mother Mary was pregnant.  We’ve known him since he was in kindergarten.  Some of us helped change his diapers.  And now he’s telling us that he came down from heaven?  Now he’s telling us that he is the one through whom we all must be saved?  How can this be?”

 

Notice how Jesus responds.  They ask him how, but he does not tell them how?  Instead, he says, “Listen, quit arguing about this with each other.  You cannot come to me unless my Father, who sent me, draws you to me.”

 

What is Jesus saying here?  Well for one, he’s acknowledging that this message is hard to understand.  We can argue about it all day.  We can study the question our whole lives.  Still, we can not, on our own, figure out how it is that Christ is the savior of the whole world.  This is a truth we may never come to understand.  It is, however, a truth we can believe.  According to Jesus, God, and God alone, can help us believe.

 

Speaking personally, I have come believe in my heart that this is the truth.  I am convinced that there is salvation for everybody in the world through Jesus Christ and that there is no salvation for anybody in the world apart from Jesus Christ.  And yet, while I believe this is the way it works, I struggle to explain to you how.  I don’t know exactly how God brought salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross?  I’ve heard all the explanations, I know all the theories, but in the end nothing fully answers the question for me.  I don’t really know how.  I just believe it.  By the grace of God, I believe it.

 

Now, I did not come to believe this because I am smarter than other people.  I have met plenty of people who are far more intelligent than I am who do not believe this.  I also do not have this faith because I have worked harder than others.  I don’t know that I have.  Neither have I necessarily lived a better life than others.  All I know is that at some point along the way in my life, God revealed this truth to my heart and my mind and it stuck.  And it stuck so deeply that I would stake my life on the truth of the Christian Gospel.

 

What Jesus is teaching us here is that my experience is every Christian’s experience.  The message of the Gospel is never discovered, or achieved, or earned.  It is only revealed.  Try all you want, but only God can open the eyes of your heart.  And unless he does, you will remain blind to this truth.

 

Now that I’m getting older my eyes don’t work as well as they used to.  For the first time in my life I’m finding it hard to read certain things.  Anybody else here having this problem?  I notice it most when I try to read the tiny print on medicine bottles.  Which is ironic?  Who’s the brilliant person that decided to put the smallest possible print available on, of all things, medicine bottles which are mostly being used by older people with failing eyesight?

 

Anyway, the other day I needed to take some allergy medicine and I was trying to check the dosage but I could not read the directions on the bottle.  It’s not that I struggled to read them, I could not read them.  So I had to do what I’m slowly getting used to doing.  I had to go and find my reading glasses.  Once I put them one, the print, all at once, came into focus as I saw at last what I could not see before.

 

God’s revelation is, I think, like a pair of spiritual reading glasses.  At one point you can’t possibly accept that this is the truth and then God comes and, in ways you will never be able to explain, opens the eyes of your heart to see clearly that this is the truth and you believe.  God illumines in our hearts what we, on our own, could never bring to light.  You might say that even faith then is a gift from God.

 

Once I learned this truth I became constantly aware of it.  As your pastor, for instance, I am aware every Sunday that I can stand up here and preach all day long trying my hardest to clearly, passionately explain the message of the Gospel to you but if God does not show up and illumine your hearts and minds to his truth it doesn’t matter what I say, you will not believe.

 

In a similar way, I can’t tell you how many times I have sat with people over the years trying to lay out the Gospel message in a way that I think makes absolute sense, and yet the person across the table from me simply cannot accept it as such.  Whether I like it or not, I have had to accept the fact that the only people who will believe are those God draws to himself to believe.  Ultimately, it’s out of my control.

 

C.S. Lewis was once asked how he made his decision to give up atheism and embrace the Gospel and follow Christ.  He didn’t like the question, however, and refused to answer it in those terms.  He had never made ‘a decision’, he said.  Instead, God had closed in on him and he couldn’t escape.  He did not decide to believe but he was, in his words, “decided upon.”[2]

 

Now, if this is true, if we can never really know how all this works, and, therefore, are forced to depend upon God, in his sovereignty, to decide to reveal this truth to our hearts, then doesn’t that lead us immediately to the second question.  If people don’t decide to believe but are, instead, decided upon by God, then who is it that God decides upon?  Who comes to believe and who never comes to believe?  Does God just choose people at random?  Does God choose the ones he likes?  In the end, who’s in and who’s out?

 

Now the Jews in the crowd that day don’t ask this question straight out.  Nonetheless, Jesus knows it’s on their minds.  Remember, after all, that these were God’s chosen people.  From the time of Abraham, they had been taught to believe that they, as Jews, were in and everybody else was out.  That meant that if God’s salvation was, in fact, somehow going to come through this man Jesus, they knew it would come to them, and only to them.

 

This leads us to one of the main reasons why most of the Jews in those days ultimately turned against Jesus.  Over and over in his teachings and in his life Jesus insisted that while salvation came only through him, he also insisted that it came through him to everybody, Jew and Gentile alike.  Jesus taught that God was inviting everybody to the party.  There was a seat at the banquet table for anybody who would come.

 

Even in this passage, notice how insistent Jesus is about this.  Verse 45, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”  Verse 47, “Whoever believes has eternal life.”  Verse 51, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  Everyone.  Whoever.  The whole world!  Jesus came to offer salvation to us all.

 

Now, do we all receive it?  Do we all believe?  Are we all saved?  Jesus’ teaching repeatedly warns that some, perhaps many, will not be saved.  Some will not believe.  Some will not trust.  Some will choose an eternity apart from Christ.

 

So, we ask, who?  Who are the people that will be saved?  And how can we make sure that we are among that number?

 

Jesus, at other points in his teaching, did answer that question.  For example, while speaking about the Kingdomof Godin Matthew 7 Jesus says famously, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.  Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”[3]

 

It’s subtle, but Jesus implies the very same thing here in verse 45 when he suggests that anyone who listens to the Father, anyone who seeks to learn from the Father, will be eventually led to the truth.

 

So, who receives salvation?  Christ taught that anybody and everybody who truly seeks after God with a humble and open heart, ready to meet God however God wants to be met, will eventually, in God’s time and in God’s way, come to meet Christ and find the salvation that comes through him.

 

Again, it is only God who draws people to himself.  And yet, at the same time, those who seek are the ones who will find themselves drawn to God.

 

Now, if you sense the tension here, you’re not alone.  As one writer put it, there is a great paradox between divine grace and human responsibility, a paradox we will never understand.[4]  How can it be true that God is the one who initially draws us if, at the very same time, it is also true that only those who first seek are the ones who find God?  How can both of these be true?  We may never fully understand.  What we do understand, however, is that faith itself is a gift, a gift for which we can pray God will give us.

 

Let me pause at this point and say that if you have felt some discomfort in what I have been saying so far, that’s good.  For one, that means you’re still awake and paying attention.  It also means that you’re not alone.  For the things Jesus is teaching here are meant to challenge us all.

 

Put simply, Jesus is saying to us, “You don’t get to tell God how the world must be saved and you don’t get to tell God who in the world gets to be saved.”  In a nutshell that’s what Jesus is telling us and I suspect that one way or another, that’s not what we want to hear.

 

Aren’t there some of us here today who want to tell God how the world must be saved.  We bristle when we hear Jesus tell us that salvation only comes through him.  Because we know that in saying so, he’s implying that the Buddhist cannot find salvation through the Noble Eightfold Path.  Neither can the Muslim find salvation through the faithful performance of the Five Pillars of Islam.  They, along with the Hindu, the Jew, the Mormon, the atheist, and the Presbyterian, only find salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ which comes through faith.

 

For some of us, this is not how we want to imagine that salvation works.

 

Others of us want to tell God who in the world must be saved.  We bristle at the idea that God, in the end, may choose to save people we don’t think are the sorts of people God should be saving.  What if God, in Christ, chooses to save people who do not believe just like we do, or belong to churches just like we do, or understand things just like we do, or live lives just like we do?  We may not have all the exact details worked out, but some of us do believe that we have a general sense of who’s in and who’s out.[5]

 

You see, Jesus’ message challenges us all.  And what’s ironic is that the Gospel message which sounds too exclusive to some of us is the very same Gospel message which sounds too inclusive to others of us.  So too often we, like the crowds that day who met with Jesus, argue about these things.  And all along Jesus is calling us to exercise some humility in these matters.

 

Who are we, really, to tell God how salvation should work?  Who are we, really, to tell God who should be saved?  We may never be able to understand how salvation works.  We will certainly never be able to dictate to God who should be saved and who should not be saved.  In the end, who are we, the very ones in need of salvation, to decide these things.

 

A long time agoSt. Augustinewrote these words:

 

This is the doctrine of grace: none comes to God unless they are drawn by God.  But whom the Father draws, and whom not, and why he draws one and not another, do not presume to decide if you want to avoid falling into error.  Take the doctrine as it is given to you: if you are not drawn, pray that you may be.

 

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the bread of life.  Whoever eats of this bread, whoever is drawn by God to trust in Christ, that person will be saved and live forever.   It’s true, Jesus is the only bread of life that has been given to the world.  But it is equally true that he is bread given to everybody in the world.  At some point, though you may never know exactly how, and though you certainly won’t ever get to decide who, you simply must come to take Jesus at his word.

 

Amen.

 

 

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The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

 

Read John 6:41-51 again.  Read the version from The Message on the Next Step to hear it from a different perspective.  What stands out to you?

 

Jeff summarized Jesus’ Gospel message this way.  Is this the way you would summarize it?

God’s salvation is available to anyone in the world.  Anyone who trusts God’s Son, Jesus Christ, as Lord and Savior receives the grace extended to us all through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.  This is the only way we can be saved because there is no other means, other than the grace of Christ, by which we receive forgiveness for the sin in our lives which separates us from God and leads to death.

 

If you have come to trust Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, what was it that finally convinced you?

 

 

 

 

How do you react when C.S. Lewis says that he never decided to follow Christ but that he was, instead, decided upon?  Explaining himself, he said that God “closed in on him and he couldn’t escape.”  Has something like this ever happened to you?

 

If it is ultimately up to God to reveal the truth of the Gospel to people, what role do we have?  Aren’t we supposed to also tell people about the Gospel?

 

Is it true that we ultimately don’t get to tell God how people are saved and that we also don’t get to tell God who gets to be saved?

 

Will people in this world be truly lost in the end without Jesus?

 

Is it possible that God will, in the end, save people we don’t think will be, or should be, saved?

 

 

Further ScriptureReadingsfor the Week:

 

Monday:               Genesis 12:1-9 – God chooses Abram

Tuesday:               Deuteronomy 7:1-11 – God’s chosen people

Wednesday:         Ephesians 3:1-13 – God’s revelation to all

Thursday:             Matthew 13:1-23 – Parable of the Sower

Friday:                   Psalm 125 – Security of God’s People

Saturday :             In preparation for worship tomorrow, read John 6:52-59.



[1] I remembering hearing one time that the average Christian needed to have the Gospel message presented to them seven times before they came to believe it.  Who knows if that’s accurate, but my experience tells me that it’s not far from the truth.

[2] Cited by N.T. Wright in John for Everyone, Part 1, (Louisville:Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 82. Wright also helpfully asks the question, what was it that made God chooseIsrael in the first place?  They didn’t ask.  There was nothing all that special about them compared to other nations.  He just chose to make them his people through whom he would reveal his plans for the whole world.  (Read Deuteronomy 7:7-11) Is it not the same with us?

[3] Matthew 7:7.  Emphases mine.

[4] Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), p. 419.

[5]While it’s a generalization, I think that the progressives/liberals among us want to tell Jesus how the world must be saved and the evangelicals/conservatives among us want to tell Jesus who in the world must be saved.