Controversial Jesus #5 - Options
Looking deeper into what John means by "whoever" in chapter 6 of his gospel, Dr. Kurt Bjorklund explores how everyone can come forward to receive the valuable gift that Jesus has to give us.
Well, welcome again to Orchard Hill. It's great to be together. Do you want to hear something depressing? Somebody told me this just beforehand, before the service started. They said that if it doesn't rain today, it will be the second time this year that we've had three straight days without rain in Pittsburgh this year. I just mentioned that. You've already seen that we're going to be talking about options because in a lot of cities rain shuts down options. Here, sun creates options. I commend you for coming and being part of this worship service this weekend here at Orchard Hill. We're going to continue our series that we started, Controversial Jesus. We've been working our way through the gospel of John. This is something we're doing in Butler County, the Strip District, Wexford. We are looking at some of the ways that people in Jesus' day were offended by Jesus or put off by Jesus. What we see is that a lot of those things aren't that different today. I want to pray, and then we'll jump into this.
Father, we ask very simply that you would speak to each of us, wherever we're coming from, whatever our life has held in recent days. I pray that you would help us to hear your word and that my words would reflect your word in content and in tone and in emphasis. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen. Well, options are good. It's nice to have a lot of choices, but you know that if you have an option, sometimes in order to get a better option, you're required to limit some of your options. For example, having a lot of choices in food is an outstanding option, but sometimes if you want to be healthy, you have to choose to voluntarily limit some of your options. If you're in an age and stage of life where you've been dating, if you want to move from dating to having an exclusive relationship with somebody, maybe getting married, you have to limit how many times and how many people you date in order to go to a more romantic relationship.
If you want to have kids, you limit some of your choices in life, the way that you spend your time, the way that you do certain things. In each of those instances, what you're doing, at least in part, is you're saying, "I'm going to give up some of my freedom, some of my options, because there's something that I want more." Well, in John chapter six, when we come to the end of this chapter, we see that many people leave Jesus, as he had been attracting these large crowds. When they leave Jesus, we're told that it's because of this hard teaching. It says, "Who can accept it?" Then, Jesus turns. He turns to his disciples, the 12 that were gathered. He says, "Do you want to leave too?" Simon Peter responds. He says, "Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life." In other words, you have something that we can't get anywhere else, and so we're going to give up our other options, in a sense, because you have something that is much more important for us.
If you follow Christ in your life for any length of time, you will come to moments where you will be forced to decide, "Do I continue to follow Jesus or do I turn away? Do I say I am not going down that path?" In fact, I would go so far as to say if you don't come to some of those points, it probably isn't God that you're following. It probably isn't Jesus that you're following but some tamed version of Jesus that you've concocted in your mind that is more palatable because then you can always agree with that version of Jesus. Jesus, in the Bible, just in this passage, was not afraid to lose large crowds of followers because he said some things that they found offensive. In fact, the very word that's used here in chapter six verse 61 is the word offend. He says, "Does this offend you?"
The word here is the word in Greek is skandalon. It gives kind of this idea of a scandal or being scandalized by something. It's the exact word that's used in John chapter 16 verse one when he says, "All of this I've told you so that you will not fall away." In other words, to be offended and to fall away are almost synonyms here. What happens is these people who are following of Jesus all of a sudden say, "I'll follow you but not that far. I'm not interested anymore because now you've pushed it a little too hard." You know what this is in life at times, to say, "I'll do something to a point," but then you say, "You know what? That's too far. I don't want to do that anymore."
In a lot of areas of your life, maybe going for a hike with friends or following a new diet or something, it's okay to say, "I'm turning around. I'm not going any farther. It's not worth it," but when it comes to Jesus Christ, it's actually a pretty big deal because Simon Peter here says, "You have the words of eternal life. You are the only place that I have to go." There's an author who, a few years ago, had a well-documented conversation to Christianity. Her name's Anne Rice. She recently came out and said this. She said, "For those who care, and I understand if you don't, today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but to not being a Christian or being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to belong to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For 10 years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."
She goes on to talk about some of the reasons that she steps out. For her, much of what she has stepped away from are some of the interpretations or ideas and maybe even some of the ways that Christians have acted, but what she's saying is, "I don't like the implications of Christianity, so I'm out. I'll still believe in Jesus, but I don't want the implications of a god." Now, we could spend a lot of time talking about what those situations might be for Anne Rice or for some of us, but what I'd like to do instead is I'd like to look at this passage and see what it is that offended the people then and see if those same things are turn away points because those are the things that probably matter more than me just pulling a list from a contemporary culture or somebody else's ideas.
We see here, I think, three places where we can be offended when it comes to following Jesus. The first is this. No one comes on his or her merit. Now, when this passage says that this is a hard teaching, you have to ask the question, "What is the hard teaching?" I believe that what the hard teaching is is in verses 52 through 58. It says, "The Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, 'How can this man give us flesh to eat?' Jesus said to them, 'Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.'" Now, from this, some churches get the idea of Jesus' physical presence in the communion table. In other words, if you've ever been in a church where they say this is the actual body and the actual blood of Jesus, it actually comes in part from this passage right here.
Now, that, I believe, is a misunderstanding. The Bible translator handbook, in talking about this section, says very clearly that in some societies, people will almost inevitably understand eating flesh is a reference to cannibalism, but the context makes it clear that this is not intended, that this is actually a reference to Jesus talking about communion in the future. What he's doing is not saying that he's physically present in communion, when there's a cracker that it actually becomes mysterious somehow God's body or that the juice somehow mysteriously the blood even though it doesn't taste like blood and doesn't taste like body. What he's saying is that, "If you don't come to the place where I've substituted on behalf of you, don't eat my body and drink my blood, then you will not have eternal life." What he's doing is he's saying to people you can not come without coming to Jesus as your sacrifice. That's what he's saying.
Here's why this is offensive. Now, if you've been around Orchard Hill a long time, this may not even seem that offensive to you. In our culture, the way that we learn about life is that if I want anything, I need to earn it. I need to secure it. We go through our entire lives saying, "My life is about doing things to earn favor." Then, when we come to spiritual life, what we say is, "I bring something to the equation. Don't I? I bring a little something to the equation, at least my goodness, my intelligence, my choice. I bring something to bear," but the words are so strong here because what Jesus does is he says, "I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, drink his blood, you have no life in you." He says, "But if you do, you'll have eternal life." What he is pointing to very simply here is that you and I bring nothing. We have no merit, but it is ultimately the merit of Jesus Christ.
I don't know if you get invited places, if you ask this question as soon as you do, "What can I bring?" If you do, what you don't want to do is you don't want to show up and feel like you contribute nothing. Now, some of you are probably okay with that. You're like, "It's great if I bring nothing," but some of you are probably more like, "I need to bring something. I need to bring something because if I bring something, then I feel like I've contributed at least something to what's gone on." I believe what Jesus is doing here is he's saying, "I want you to understand you bring nothing, no merit," and this is offensive in our world because we want to believe that somehow we cooperate with God and God likes the way that we live our lives, and our morality, our righteousness, our religiosity, our goodness, our coolness has somehow been commended. What the Bible is so consistent at doing is saying, "You bring nothing."
Let me just show you something from the book of Job, and I'm going to read you several verses here. This is meant not for you to necessarily take notes on this but just to overwhelm you for a moment because I want you to see in the book of Job how Job sees himself and then the point that he comes to. Somebody else pointed this out to me, so this is not original to me, but I thought this was helpful. Job chapter six verse 10, it says, "Then I would have this consolation, my joy and unrelenting pain that I had not denied the words of the Holy One." Job is going through hardship. He says, "I've never denied the words of God." Job chapter six verse 28, it says, "Now so to be kind as to look at me, would I lie to your face?" He basically says, "God, I've never lied to you." Verse 29, "Relent, do not be unjust. Reconsider my integrity is at stake." In other words, "God, I've been full of integrity."
Chapter nine verse 15 says this, "Though I were innocent, I could not answer him. I could plead with my judge for mercy." He says, "I'm innocent." Chapter 16 verse 17 says it this way. It says, "Yet my hands have been free of violence and my prayers pure." He says, "I've never done anything that's been violent. My prayer has been completely pure." Chapter 23 verses 11 and 12 say it this way. He says, "My feet have closely followed his steps. I have kept to his way without turning aside. I've not departed from the commands of his lips. I have treasured his words, the words of his mouth, more than my daily bread." In other words, "I've so made a priority of God's word that it's been more important to me than what I eat." Chapter 27 verse four, "My lips do not say anything wicked, and my tongue will not utter lies." Chapter 29 verse 12, "Because I rescued the poor who cried for help and the fatherless who had none to assist them." "I've been full of benevolence," in other words, "to people who are hurting."
Verse 13, "The one who is dying blessed me. I made the widow's heart sing." Again, "I've helped people who've been hurting." Verse 15, "I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame." Verse 16, "I was a father to the needy. I took up the case of the stranger." Starting to get the idea here that Job's self-perception is that I have done everything right. Even part of the point of the book of Job, when you go back to the very beginning, is Job is said to be a person who had integrity, but here we see this. 31 verse one, "I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman." Now he's saying, "Even in my thought life, I've been completely pure." 31 verse five, "If I have walked with falsehood or my foot has hurried after deceit," and the implication is I've not done any of those things. Chapter 31 verse 16 says it this way. It says, "If I've denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary," and again, what you see is just this insistence of rightness.
Now, I could give you several more, but let me fast forward to the end of the book. Here's what we read. Job chapter 42 verse six, actually, start in verse five, "My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you." He says, "Now when I've seen God." "Therefore, I despise myself, and I repent in dust and ashes." Here's the point. As long as you and I continue to say, "I bring something to bear. There's something I can contribute," we haven't actually seen Jesus because what we're doing then is we're simply saying, "I have something that's of value, of worth, to offer," rather than saying, "My basis for coming is not my merit, but it's Jesus." You see how, in Jesus' day, people said, "We're leaving. We don't like this. We want to bring something. That's what we want to do." That's one place where people can be offended.
Here's a second. This is no one comes without being drawn. We see this in verse 44 and verse 37. It's in verse 65, I believe, as well. Here's what it says in verse 44. It says, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up on the last day." Verse 37 is the positive statement of that, "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me will never be driven away." Now, this points to a doctrine that the church has debated for years, the doctrine of election. If you've not heard of the doctrine of election, maybe that's something where you say, "Okay, this is new to me." If you've been around church for any length of time, chances are you've heard people do one of two things with this.
Either they get really excited about this. They love to talk about it, and they love to kind of drive this point home and say, "This is really important. Everyone needs to know it. Everyone needs to understand it," or they just say, "You know what? This is kind of a secondary thing. It's no big deal." Whatever the doctrine of election is, it is Biblical. It's taught in Ephesians one. It's taught in Romans. It's taught here in John. It's taught in other places, where this idea of God saying, "If somebody comes to me, I will draw them to myself." The way that this has been defined, depending on different people, is by different categories, but the basic understanding is that God, in eternity past, chose who would respond to him and says, "I will draw this person to myself."
Here in John, when the people walk away because of the hard teaching, they walk away because they say, "I can't bring anything, and I don't like that." It's possible that they walk away because they say, "Not only that, you're telling me that I didn't even choose this, but you drew me. You were the one who was behind it, that you were the mover." Now, why don't we like that? Well, there's a couple reasons for it. One is it doesn't always feel fair to us. I was talking to a friend of mine recently. I was actually talking to his wife I don't know quite as well. He had taken his wife to see Garth Brooks when Garth Brooks was in town a week or two ago, a couple weeks ago. It had always been his wife's dream to go to a Garth Brooks concert. He didn't love Garth Brooks, but he was like, "I'm going to take her to Garth Brooks." He bought tickets in the very last row of Heinz Stadium.
They were walking around beforehand. When they were walking around, somebody came up to them and said, "Are you here for the concert?" Obviously they were here for the concert. This guy was assigned to fill the front couple rows with special guest passes so that people would have a good experience. He gave my friend and his wife tickets so that they ended up in the second row of the Garth Brooks concert. Now, this lady had wanted to go to this for years, and so she's in the second row at Garth Brooks and saying, "This is awesome." Now, the question is they were chosen for something special, and what they probably didn't do is say, "Oh, yeah. Everyone else wasn't chosen. We're special." All they did was said, "This is awesome. This is spectacular." What happens sometimes when it comes to this idea in terms of faith is people say, "You know what? If God doesn't give everyone the exact equal opportunity, then somehow we feel like God is unjust. If God doesn't choose everyone, then everyone doesn't have equal opportunity."
Now, I don't know that that's entirely true, and we'll see that in just a moment, but that's the objection when I believe that the idea of election is given to followers of Jesus today to communicate to people this idea of special place that God has for us and to take the stress out of our work and our effort of saying, "I have to responsible for what God does." There was a story that appeared just this last week or so. This spring, when students graduated from Morehouse College, a billionaire investor named Robert F Smith announced during commencement when he was giving his speech that he would pay off the student loans of the entire graduating class. It was estimated that it would cost him about $40 million, and it would pay off the loans of 400 young men and women who were graduating from this school.
What happened in the days ahead were that people began to be outraged about Mr. Smith's gift to these individuals. Here are some of the comments that began to be relayed. This has been reported in The Washington Post. "Robert F Smith Morehouse gift has resonated with me and not in a completely positive way," a reader from Virginia wrote, "Of course I'm happy for the students, and I'm very appreciative of a rich person who contributes from his success to others. However, my immediate thought was, 'What about the classmates who struggled and sacrificed to pay the cost of their education without going into debt?' There must be many feeling left out, unlucky, or even resentful. I feel conflicted. Without being smart enough to graduate to guarantee some better conclusion, but I think in this place, I would have the generous contribution in a permanent scholarship fund for all."
What happens is he makes this gift, says, "I'm going to take care of everyone's debt," and people on the outside say, "No, no, no. That's not fair. You got to do it for everybody." Here was another sentiment, "There are others who racked up debt with no idea how they could minimize it or how they would pay it off and are being rewarded for irresponsible financial behavior." People basically said, "He shouldn't do this because it's not fair." Here's the idea of election, of God saying, "The only ones who can come are those that I draw." He's saying, "I want you to know that I've given you something that's incredibly precious, something that is valuable," but that needs to be balanced with one other statement that's here. If you dislike that idea, you might like this next one, although you may not.
That is no one who comes is turned away. No one comes based on his or her own merit. No one comes without being drawn. No one who comes is turned away. Here's where we see this. We see this word whoever. Verse 47, "Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life." The one who believes has eternal life. Verse 51 says it this way, "I am the living bread who came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever." Verse 54, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." Verse 56, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them." Verse 57, "Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live." It's either whoever or the one here. Verse 58, "This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever."
Here's the part that maybe is not liked by some. That is some of us think that the emphasis on two seemingly opposite extremes seems a little off-putting. Don Carson, in his commentator, said this, "Despite the strong predestinarian strain in this passage, it must be insisted with no less vigor that John emphasizes the responsibility of the people to come to Jesus." In other words, what we see here is that there is not this idea that says only those who come can come without the corresponding idea of saying whoever can come. Here's why some of us don't like this idea maybe. Some of us prefer to think that, again, there's some merit, there's some special privilege that we've garnered to give us something with God. We want some groups, maybe some people of different political parties, different persuasions, different ideas to be left out, but John is insistent on this use of this word, whoever.
It's as if he says you've been chosen to come sit in the front row of the concert, but the concert is wide open to anybody who wants to come. You see, you and I will have some turn away points when it comes to following Jesus. It may not be these exact things that are in this passage, but what will happen is, somewhere along the line, you'll come to something, and you'll say, "I don't really like that." The question will be: Will you say, "That offends me to the point where I say, 'I'm going to walk away from Jesus and not follow Jesus in that area,' or will I say, 'Okay. Where else do I have to go, God? You have the words of eternal life'"? Here's what I know from having personally been a follower of Jesus Christ for years and years now. That is every time that I come to one of these turn away points and I decide to say, "I'm not going to take that to heart," what ends up happening is I end up with a self-directed life and a place of regret.
Every time I say even if it isn't to my liking immediately, and I follow, what ends up happening is I end up coming to understand this. One of the things that's in this passage is this idea of election. I remember when I first heard this, I was just like, "No, no, no. There's no way that's true. God invites whoever he wants," and I disliked it. You know what I've come to see? This is a word of God of assurance for people like you and me. This is why we have assurance to say that God has worked in my life. What it does is it helps me to worship, to say, "God, I'm not smart enough to figure this out. I didn't bring anything. I don't have anything to offer." It works into the essence of the whole gospel message for me in such a way that, instead of saying I somehow have attained or achieved or brought something to bear, that I see it all as grace.
I know if you've been around some kind of works-based faith system or you've been in the secular world and not even around faith at all, and for you it's all been about "Well, I'm sure if I just do well enough, then God will say I've done well enough at the end of my life" kind of thinking, that grace seems radical. What we see John doing throughout this gospel is, over and over, he pushes into people's defenses. He says, "I want you to see that it's not about your performance. It's about the performance of Jesus Christ." If you get that, if you see that, what it does is it brings freedom. As long as we want to have the option of bringing something, of choosing something, of saying who's in and who's out, then what we do is we create a system that elevates us, and we use our religion as a chip to feel good about ourselves.
This is why religion divides in our world, because we use it sometimes as a chip to say, "I'm one of the good people. Those are the bad people," instead of saying, "I'm a person who's a recipient of grace, and the grace is available to anybody who comes." See, that brings healing to my heart, to your heart, to the world in which we live. It's what we hope is true of the people who call Orchard Hill Church their church home. Instead of saying, "We're the people who get it," that we say, "We're the people who've been given it by Jesus Christ. Because we've been given it, we can offer it because it isn't about us. We haven't figured it out. We were drawn by God to become God worshipers. We were not saved because of our own merit. We didn't come because somehow we had it down but because of what God has done on our behalf through Jesus Christ."
I just want to say this. If you're here and you're troubled by this idea of election, look at that little word whoever. "Whoever will come," he says, "will have eternal life." If you feel any compulsion tonight, you are being drawn by God, and you can come and respond to the offer of the bread and the cup, the sacrifice, the substitution of Jesus Christ and say, "I now know that I have eternal life, that my life does not need to be lived with the up and down of whether or not I work and perform, but it is a present possession that God gives to those who come to him in faith." That's the assurance that lets you enjoy the life that you have today with the hope of the life that will yet be. Father, we ask that you would help each one of us to not be offended by truths that are hard but instead wrestle with them and come to believe and savor and worship you because of the things that you've taught us about yourself. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.