Hard sayings are actually invitations. They call us to see past the gifts from Jesus to Jesus himself. Do we only want what he gives, or do we want him? The hard sayings call us to embrace the inestimable worth of Jesus. They force us to recognize that we are starving, and he alone is the bread of life.
The Bible is filled with hard sayings, truths that we find difficult to embrace. The doctrine of hell. The exclusivity of Christ. Unconditional election and effectual calling. Sometimes these doctrines can actually be barriers to faith or justifications for unbelief. We stumble over these hard sayings. We grumble over these hard sayings. We quarrel over these hard sayings. So, why are they in the Bible?
Recently when reading through the Gospel of John, I was struck by a new way of looking at hard sayings. Yes, they cause stumbling and grumbling and quarreling. But precisely in doing so, they also offer a surprising invitation.
Not Exactly Seeker Sensitive
John 6 records the feeding of the five thousand. The story is thick with biblical echoes. Jesus feeds a large mass of people, at Passover, on a mountain, near a body of water, which he then miraculously crosses. Echoes of the story of the exodus are intended, and the crowds recognize them. They see the sign — miraculous bread — and conclude that Jesus is the Prophet, the one that Moses foretold (Deuteronomy 18:15–19; John 6:14).
After Jesus crosses the sea in the night, the crowds follow him the next day. Significantly, these people are “seeking Jesus” (John 6:24). Don’t miss this. These are Jesus-seekers. But Jesus knows their hearts. He knows many of these people are seeking him because they ate their fill of the loaves and want more.
What’s more, it becomes clear that the people want Jesus on their terms. They want to negotiate with him. “Give us a sign and we’ll believe in you. Give us magic bread from heaven and we will come to you. Be like Moses, who gave our ancestors manna in the wilderness” (see John 6:28–34).
Given Hard Words
But in the face of their demand for bread, Jesus gives them a hard saying. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Jesus doesn’t want to merely fill their bellies; he wants to satisfy their souls. And though these people have seen Jesus, they have not yet believed in him (John 6:36). That is, they’ve not yet come to him as the bread of life. And then Jesus describes how this coming to him happens. Election — the Father gives a people to the Son (John 6:37). Calling — those given to him then come to him. Perseverance — Jesus keeps those who come until the resurrection (John 6:38–40).