60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. – John 6:60-66 ESV
The message Jesus delivered in the synagogue regarding “the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:57 ESV) had made an impression on His audience. His bizarre comments about eating His flesh and drinking His blood had not gone unnoticed. His offer of eternal life definitely piqued their interest. But there appears to be no one who heard Jesus speak who grasped the meaning behind all that He said.
When Jesus had attempted to tell Nicodemus about the need for a new birth “from above” in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, the well-educated Pharisee had responded, “How can these things be?” (John 3:9 ESV). And Jesus answered with a question of His own: “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:12 ESV).
Nicodemus had been unable to grasp the spiritual nature of Jesus’ words. His mind was stuck on an earthly plane, limiting his ability to hear the wonderful news that Jesus was conveying in His message. And he had walked away confused, but not converted.
The same was true for those who heard Jesus speak in the synagogue in Capernaum. John has made it clear that a good portion of the audience “grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven’” (John 6:41 ESV). They saw Jesus as a man from Nazareth, not some divine being who had descended from the sky. And when they heard Jesus claim that eating His flesh would result in eternal life, they had “disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (John 6:52 ESV).
If one were to judge the effectiveness of Jesus’ communication skills based on the peoples’ response, the conclusion would have to be that He failed miserably. His sermon appears to have produced no converts. No one asked to receive the bread that He offered. No one came forward eager to drink His blood. Instead, they disputed, grumbled, and struggled to understand what Jesus was talking about. John even indicates that even those who considered themselves followers of Jesus were having a difficult time taking in all that He had said.
These “disciples” as John describes them were made up of those who had traveled all the way from Bethsaida, eager to see Jesus perform another miracle. They had eaten the bread and fish He had multiplied and had shown up in Capernaum hoping to receive more of the same. Others had heard the rumors about His miracles and were anxious to see Him perform a sign with their own eyes. In the gospels, the term “disciple” is used to refer to all those who followed Jesus. It does not necessarily mean that these people were believers. In fact, John will make it clear that many of these disciples or followers of Jesus ended up abandoning Him as a result of His message in the synagogue.
“…many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” – John 6:66 ESV
They had been attracted by His miraculous works but repulsed by His words. They proved to be fairweather followers who chose to walk away from Jesus when they didn’t get what they wanted from Him.
When Jesus overheard the grumbling among His followers, He responded, “Does this offend you? Then what will you think if you see the Son of Man ascend to heaven again?” (John 6:61-62 NLT). Here Jesus reveals the true nature of their contention. It was not so much that He had offered His body and blood as food, but that He had claimed to be the Son of God sent from heaven.
“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:29 ESV
“the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven…” –John 6:33 ESV
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.” – John 6:38 ESV
“I am the bread that came down from heaven.” – John 6:41 ESV
“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.” – John 6:50-51 ESV
Jesus reveals that this was the crux of the matter. They just couldn’t bring themselves to believe that He was divine. They could possibly accept the fact that He was a prophet sent from God or even the Messiah. But in either case, He would have been a mere man, and not God in human flesh.
But as difficult as it was to accept that Jesus had come down from heaven, He prophetically reveals that the day will come when He returns. Once again, Jesus was speaking rather cryptically, using language that left His audience scratching their heads in confusion. But there was a small contingent within the crowd who would one day understand the full import of His words. The men who would later become His apostles and the emissaries of His message would be eyewitnesses to His future ascension.
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. – Mark 16:19-20 ESV
But Jesus’ mention of His ascension most likely included a veiled reference to His crucifixion. He had told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15 ESV). John also records Jesus restating this claim and adds an important note of clarification.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. – John 12:32-33 ESV
Jesus’ return to heaven would be preceded by His sacrificial death. He had come to die so that others might live. His death had been the sole purpose behind His coming. He had been sent from heaven to offer His life as a ransom for many so that they might be restored to a right relationship with God. His body would be broken and His blood would be poured out for the sins of many. And one day, His true followers would fully comprehend the meaning of His words. Luke records that when His disciples saw Him ascend into heaven, “they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53 ESV).
But that day in the synagogue in Capernaum, there was no one who comprehended the meaning behind Jesus’ words. And there were none who rejoiced at what they heard. And Jesus revealed that their inability to understand His words was because they lacked insight from the Spirit of God.
“It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” – John 6:63 ESV
Not only were they unable to comprehend His words, but they were also incapable of achieving eternal life. Without the Spirit’s help, they would remain blind to the reality of what Jesus was saying. It was just as Jesus had told Nicodemus:
“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” – John 3:6 ESV
There were some in Jesus’ audience who would eventually end up understanding the words of Jesus and believing His claim to be the Son of God. But as Jesus revealed, there were others who would not and could not believe. And John adds further proof of Jesus’ deity by stating that He “knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him” (John 6:64 ESV).
The crowd that followed Jesus was about to grow smaller. And Jesus revealed that following after Him was not the same as coming to Him. Anyone could join the crowds that lined up to see Him work miracles. But only those called by God and empowered by the Spirit of God could become true disciples of the Son of God. And Jesus reiterated His earlier claim.
“no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” – John 6:65 ESV
Many would follow, but not all would believe. Miracles may attract a crowd, but they don’t transform a sinner into a saint. Only the Spirit of God can do that. he opens the eyes of those blinded by sin so they can see the truth of Gospel:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 ESV
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.