At times, Jesus used the style of starting his discourse with a misunderstanding and ending later with the clarity of a divine truth. Such was the case with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Both took what Jesus told in a literal sense, different from what Jesus meant. Such was the case when Jesus taught on the Holy Eucharist before establishing it at the Last Supper. He said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:54-55). Since it was not practical in the literal sense and eating the flesh of humans and drinking blood were against the Hebrew Scriptures, many followers of Jesus left him. However, others, including the twelve apostles, stood firm with Jesus. Sometimes, Jesus’ teachings or of his church might not make sense to us. How do we respond in such a situation?
BIBLE TEXT (JOHN 6:60-69)
The Words of Eternal Life
(Jn 6:60) After hearing this, many of Jesus’ followers said, “This sort of teaching is very hard! Who can accept it?” (61) Jesus was aware that his disciples were murmuring about this and so he said to them, “Does this offend you? (62) Then how will you react when you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (63) It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh cannot help. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. (64) Yet among you there are some who do not believe.” From the beginning, Jesus knew who did not believe and who would betray him. (65) So he added, “This is why I told you, no one can come to me unless it is given to him by the Father.” (66) After this many disciples withdrew and no longer followed him. (67) Jesus asked the Twelve, “Will you also go away?” (68) Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (69) We have come to believe and now we know that you are the Holy One of God.”
This gospel passage should be understood in the background of a series of events and teachings that happened prior to this. After preaching on a mountain at the seashore in Tiberias, Jesus multiplied five loves of barley bread and two fish to feed his listeners, comprising five thousand men and probably an equivalent number of women and children. Considering Jesus as a prophet, the people wanted to make him their king. But he withdrew to a mountain alone (Jn 6:1-15). Afterwards, the disciples witnessed Jesus’ walking on the water (Jn 6:16-21). The next day, the crowd searched for Jesus and found him teaching at a synagogue in Capernaum.
Realizing that the crowd was after him because of the multiplication of bread and fish, Jesus taught them on the bread of life, which was incomprehensible for the people. He asked them to work for “the food that endures for eternal life” that he would give them. During their discourse with Jesus, the Jews referred to the manna that Moses gave to their ancestors. Instead of such food for physical survival, Jesus promised them his own body and blood as nourishment to gain eternal life. Jesus presented himself as the true bread of God from heaven that is life-sustaining. When the Jews murmured at it, and considered only his earthly origin, he clarified, saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?’” (Jn 6:52).
The Words of Eternal Life
(Jn 6:60) After hearing this, many of Jesus’ followers said, “This sort of teaching is very hard! Who can accept it?”
After hearing this
Jesus told the Jews, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day” (Jn 6:53-54). That made little sense to the people.
The listeners could not comprehend the teaching on consuming Jesus’ body and blood because he established the Holy Eucharist only later. The people were taking the message in a literal sense while Jesus was talking from a spiritual significance. Jesus had a similar style of discourse with the Samaritan woman and Nicodemus.
Many of Jesus’ followers said
Besides the crowd who gathered to listen to Jesus, even many of his followers found his teaching on the consumption of his body and blood offensive. The situation resembled the seed sown on the rocky ground. The miracles and teachings of Jesus impressed these followers at first and so they gladly followed him. Though they might have received baptism in the name of Jesus (Jn 4:1), they became fallen away followers when they found his teaching irrational to their understanding. So, their loyalty to Jesus did not last (Mt 13:20-21). Some others, including the 12 apostles and the 72 disciples, accepted whatever Jesus taught although they did not understand his teaching. Their patience helped them for the grasp of what Jesus taught later when he established the Holy Eucharist at the last supper.
“This sort of teaching is very hard! Who can accept it?”
From a worldly point of view, Jesus’ doctrine on asking to consume his body and blood was nonsense because it was impractical to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus. It was also against the Jewish law. So, the word “hard” here meant offensive to the listeners. That is clear from Jesus’ following question to them: “Does this offend you?”
(61) Jesus was aware that his disciples were murmuring about this and so he said to them, “Does this offend you?
Jesus was aware that his disciples were murmuring about this
Jesus noticed the murmuring of his disciples on his teaching that was unintelligible to them. Being afraid of asking to Jesus for clarification, they searched among themselves if any of them understood what Jesus taught. They were asked one other how that teaching of Jesus could agree with the Hebrew Scriptures.
So he said to them, “Does this offend you?
Jesus understood their limitation in understanding his strange teaching because they took the teachings of Jesus on the Eucharist in a literal sense.
(62) Then how will you react when you see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
Though Jesus had a human origin from Mary, he has existed for eternity. He was consumed in the womb of Mary without a human father, but by the Holy Spirit’s intervention. Since he came from heaven, he will rise from the dead and will ascend where he came from. According to Mark, “the Lord Jesus, after he spoke to them (the eleven), was taken up into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of God” (Mk 16:19). “The one who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph 4:10). The eleven apostles who had eaten his flesh and consumed his blood at the Last Supper were eyewitnesses to the ascension. So, Jesus proved that his origin was from heaven. This was a prediction of Jesus’ ascension and evidence for his coming back from heaven.
(63) It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh cannot help. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.
It is the spirit that gives life
Man got life when God blew into his nostrils the breath of life in the human body he formed out of the dust (Gen 2:7). Unlike other living beings, the LORD did this only for the creation of man. Only humans received the image and likeness of God. So human life is superior and different from the animal and vegetative life. Only humans can receive the Holy Spirit. Though the first parents received the spirit of God directly from Him, the original sin corrupted it. Jesus allows us to restore that deficiency through baptism and strengthen it with other sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. Paul wrote, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).
The flesh cannot help.
Flesh in the Bible stands for worldly and sinful nature of humans and its inclination to satisfy the sensual desires. Therefore, the flesh cannot help to gain eternal life. So, with the Holy Eucharist, Jesus nourishes our souls to gain eternal life. The flesh gains value with the presence of the spirit of God within us. Both Christ and the Spirit spiritually empowers us. “From the beginning to the end of time, whenever God sends his Son, he always sends his Spirit: their mission is conjoined and inseparable” (CCC-743).
The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.
Jesus’ words on his body and blood that he offers for the enrichment of our souls are spiritual and are competent to gain us the spirit of God and life eternal. “By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. Just as Christ is risen and lives forever, so all of us will rise at the last day” (CCC-1016).
(64) “Yet among you there are some who do not believe.” From the beginning, Jesus knew who did not believe and who would betray him.
For the public, Jesus was at first a master or a teacher who taught in the synagogues (Mk 1:21) and at public places (Mk 2:13). Like followers of other rabbis of the time, many followed him because of their curiosity to listen to his enlightening teachings. Some people called him rabbi because, like other rabbis, he also taught in a sitting position (Mt 5:1; 13:1), he was an expert in the scriptures, lectured in the synagogues and at the Temple (Lk 19:47), and used parables to teach.
Some people considered Jesus as a prophet because he taught with authority as if his words were direct from God than the scribes who used to teach from the scripture (Mt 7:29). His reputation and followers increased as a prophet because he performed miracles more than all other prophets did. “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Mt 16:14).
The close disciples of Jesus believed in the divinity of Jesus and even they performed miracles using the power Jesus shared with them. When Jesus called Nathaniel as a disciple, he acknowledged the divinity of Jesus saying, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (Jn 1:49). When Jesus asked to Simon Peter, “But who do you say that I am?” his reply was, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15-16).
“Yet among you there are some who do not believe.”
Many believed in what Jesus taught, and even considered him as the Messiah. However, some of his initial disciples doubted his teachings. Though they appreciated his instruction and miracles, they were not firm believers in Jesus and his role as the Christ. Those are the people who discontinued following him. They were like the seed that “fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots” (13:5-6).
From the beginning, Jesus knew who did not believe
Jesus was aware of the effect of his ministry on each individual. He accommodated all of them with patience and gave them the freedom to stay with him or leave him. Along with the human nature, he had the divine knowledge to understand the inner thoughts of his listeners. John documented, “While he was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, many began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well” (Jn 2:23-25). This he knew from the beginning of his ministry.
From the beginning, Jesus knew who did not believe and who would betray him.
Jesus selected Judas Iscariot as one of his apostles, honoring his desire to follow Jesus. Vocation is one’s own choice and God’s selection. Jesus knew Judas would betray him even when he joined the company of the twelve. In John 6:71-72, we read, “‘Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?’ He was referring to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot; it was he who would betray him, one of the Twelve.” Still, Jesus accepted him to that key position.
A reasonable question arises, “If Jesus knew the betrayal, why did he choose Judas as an Apostle?” The answers are:
The betrayal of Jesus by a disciple of his inner circle was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jesus’ passion. That would add to the mental agony Jesus accepted, along with his physical torture. He received such a heartbreak for fulfilling the prophecy. Psalm 41:10 recites, “Even my trusted friend, who ate my bread, has raised his heel against me.” Jesus referred to this in John 13:18; 17:12, Matthew 26:24, Mark 14:21. Peter mentioned this in his speech after the Ascension of the Lord to 120 followers of Jesus (Acts 1:16). He also linked the purchase of Akeldama to Psalm 69:26 and replacement of Judas to Psalm 109:8 (Acts 1:20). The betrayal for thirty pieces of silver has reference to Zechariah 11:12-13.
The life of Judas is a proof that the good can become bad and vice versa. Judas might have followed Jesus with a genuine intention. Jesus did not reject him when he expressed his desire to become a disciple. Though Jesus knew the development of worldly inclinations in Judas, Jesus accommodated him because Jesus came to call not the righteous but sinners (Mt 9:13). Jesus gave Judas the opportunity to know him intimately. Along with the other eleven disciples, Jesus allowed him to drive out unclean spirits and to cure every disease and every illness (Mt 10:1-2). He had seen and experienced who Jesus was and got an opportunity for salvation from Jesus. Judas had the freedom to choose either the way of Jesus or to gratify his own desires. When he was entrusted with the financial management, he “used to steal the contributions” (Jn 12:6). Money became an obsession for him, and his interests shifted to selfish motives. The Satan who misguided Eve (Gen 3:1-7) sneaked into him (Lk 22:3).
The chief priests and the scribes were seeking a way to kill Jesus because of Jesus’ popularity and noncompliance with them. Understanding this, Judas approached the chief priests and temple guards to support them for the sake of money. God gives us the freedom to do good or evil. Judas preferred the wrong way, ignoring Jesus’ teaching, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:19-21).
Jesus did not select Judas as a betrayer and his betrayal was not Jesus’ intention. It was Judas’ own choice. Jesus gave him several warnings so he could correct himself.
– When Jesus taught about the Holy Eucharist, many of his disciples left him. Then Jesus asked the apostles whether they also want to leave. Simon Peter then professed their faith in Jesus as the “Holy One of God.” The response of Jesus was, “‘Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?’ He was referring to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot; it was he who would betray him, one of the Twelve” (Jn 6:66-71).
– When Jesus washed the feet of the apostles, he said, “‘you are clean, but not all. For he knew who would betray him” (Jn 13:10b-11).
– At the last supper, while Judas Iscariot was present, “Jesus was deeply troubled and testified, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me’” (Jn 13:21). When John asked, “‘Master, who is it?’ Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.’ So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot. After he took the morsel, Satan entered him. So Jesus said to him, ‘What you are going to do, do quickly’” (Jn 13:25-27). On the same occasion, Jesus said, “‘The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.’ Then Judas, his betrayer, said in reply, ‘Surely it is not I, Rabbi?’ He answered, ‘You have said so’” (Mt 26:24-25).
Judas ignored these warnings because he was blinded by his worldly desires. He could not escape from that addiction. Jesus did not take any negative approach to Judas because he allows the weeds to grow along with the seeds (Mt 13:26-30). Even when Judas came with the soldiers and kissed Jesus, his response was kind, “Friend, do what you have come for” (Mt 26:50). Such an unrevengeful approach might have prompted Judas to realize his sin and to confess, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood” (Mt 27:4). Unlike Peter, who repented (Mt 26:75), Judas deeply regretted (Mt 27:3) on his mistake. “Regret is a feeling of remorse that is a negative emotion as it leads one to think continuously about his past action or behavior and causes more shame, guilt, anger, disappointment etc. Repentance is a positive emotion as it makes one learn about his mistake, and he vows not to repeat it in the future” (https://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-regret-and-vs-repentance).
Because of adverse circumstances or misuse of freedom, people might commit sin. However, Jesus offers us a chance to repent. Judas chose the wide path for worldly goals that ended up in self-destruction. Though Peter denied his discipleship three times, he made use of Jesus’ generosity to forgive the sinners. Let us follow Peter’s approach when we fall.
(65) So he added, “This is why I told you, no one can come to me unless it is given to him by the Father.”
Along with our attempts, faith in the true God and salvation are gifts from heaven. John the Baptist taught his disciples, “No one can receive anything except what has been given him from heaven” (Jn 3:27). When Jesus preached, all could not comprehend him. When the disciples asked, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” Jesus replied, “Because knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted” (Mt 13:10-11).
Besides the preaching, Jesus performed supernatural signs in public. However, many did not believe in him “in order that the word which Isaiah the prophet spoke might be fulfilled: ‘Lord, who has believed our preaching, to whom has the might of the Lord been revealed?’ For this reason they could not believe, because again Isaiah said: ‘He blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not see with their eyes and understand with their heart and be converted, and I would heal them” (Jn 12:37-40).
(66) After this many disciples withdrew and no longer followed him.
“After this” here stands for Jesus’ teaching on the requirement of his followers to consume his flesh and blood to attain eternal life (Jn 6:48-58). That made little sense to many disciples, and they found it offensive because it was against the traditional beliefs and teachings.
many disciples withdrew
Not all disciples leave Jesus forever. Those who left were all or part of the disciples who are mentioned in John 6:60 who said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” They were the nominal disciples who were baptized to join the company of Jesus but were not deep-rooted in faith. They had their own perception of the Messiah, which they failed to see in Jesus.
The 12 apostles, 72 disciples, some devoted women, and many others continued following Jesus as his disciples. After the resurrection, Jesus had 120 disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15), and 500 in Galilee (1 Cor 15:6). Jesus did not express any offense at those who withdrew from his discipleship. They had the freedom to join him and leave him.
no longer followed him.
Those who left the discipleship returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him as his disciples. They continued practicing their Jewish way of religious practices.
(67) Jesus asked the Twelve, “Will you also go away?”
Losing many disciples was a discouraging experience for Jesus. He wanted to find out the attitude of the apostles, who were also listeners of what he taught on the Eucharist. However, they had been accompanying him full-time and so should have a better understanding of him. Jesus had shared his power to heal and to cast out demons with them, and they had made use of them well. So, he raised this sensitive question of whether they would also leave him.
(68) Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Simon Peter answered him
Though Jesus addressed the question to all the twelve apostles, Simon Peter answered, representing all of them. He had in-born leadership qualities and acceptance among the apostles. We see Peter’s initiative to do things and boldness to talk to Jesus or address others representing the twelve.
10 After the Ascension of Jesus, Peter addressed 120 disciples in Jerusalem to select an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts 1:15-16).
Thus, Peter was a spokesperson and a natural leader among the apostles. Because of his boldness and deep faith in Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus appointed him as the head of the church.
Lord, to whom shall we go?
The apostles left everything for Jesus (Mt 19:27; Lk 18:28). They were witnesses to the miracles Jesus performed. Even though they could go back to their profession like fishing or tax collection, they knew that Jesus’ way was far better for them, especially for their life after death.
Peter’s answer expresses the apostles’ firm belief that Jesus was the Messiah, and that only he could lead them to God. It was Peter’s prompt response and sincere confidence in Jesus. They knew that other teachers of the time, like the scribes, Pharisees, and priests, were corrupt and they were the blind leading the blind (Mt 15:14).
You have the words of eternal life.
Jesus trained the disciples to work for eternal life, making use of all the resources they had in this world. Once, a youth approached Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ reply was to keep the commandments. Jesus continued, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). The apostles gave up every material resource they had and followed Jesus with the hope of eternal reward.
Jesus promised eternal life several times to those who follow his life-giving words. “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24). “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day” (Jn 6:40). “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63). “I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life” (Jn 12:49-50).
(69) “We have come to believe and now we know that you are the Holy One of God.”
We have come to believe and now we know
The disciples had faith in Jesus when they answered his call to become the apostles. Their knowledge of Jesus grew as they listened to him more, witnessed his miracles, seen his compassion for the poor, and his authority to forgive sins. They got the assurance that Jesus came from above, though they were unaware of how Jesus would perform his role as the Messiah. At Caesarea Philippi, Peter had a revelation from the heavenly Father to proclaim Jesus as son of the Living God (Mt 16:16-17). Since then, Peter and his companions never doubted the divinity of Jesus. So, even when they did not understand well the teachings of Jesus, they believed in what he said as children trust their parents.
The apostles realized everything told in the Holy Scriptures about the Messiah was fulfilled in Jesus. Though the Jewish leaders objected to Jesus and denied his Messiahship, the disciples understood him as the God-promised savior of the world. So, even though they could not understand his teaching of eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus and many disciples left him, the apostles stood strong with Jesus.
you are the Holy One of God.
Holiness stands for perfection. Though holiness can be of varying degrees, God is the purest holiness. Since Jesus is the second person of the Most Holy Trinity, he is also holy in the prefect sense. Even when he took the human nature, it did not reduce his holiness because he is of divine origin and is free from sin. He has shown humanity how a person can resemble God in holiness by keeping the covenantal relationship with God and by doing acts of charity even to the adversaries.
When Isaiah had the vision of heaven, he heard Seraphim crying out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” (Isa 6:3). So, Isaiah repeatedly titled God as “the Holy One of Israel.”
While Jesus was teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, a man with an unclean spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mk 1:24). Jesus ordered him to keep quiet. Peter and other disciples might have noticed this secret of Jesus. Peter made use of the same phrase when he expressed his faith in Jesus. Through this, Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah that God promised to send for crushing the head of the Satan (Gen 3:15) and save humanity forever.
Peter publicly acknowledged the divinity of Jesus thrice. The first was when Jesus walked on the sea, those in the boat, including Peter, did him homage, saying, “Truly, you are the Son of God” (Mt 14:33). The next was in response to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). A third one was this passage when Peter said, “you are the Holy One of God” in response to Jesus’ question, “Will you also go away?”