Now that Christ had responded to the two objections of the people, one concerning the origin of spiritual food (vv. 41-52), and the other concerning the eating of spiritual food (vv. 53-59), He then addressed the doubts of His disciples (vv. 60-71). Some of His disciples were so scandalized by His statements concerning living bread that they left Him and returned to their homes (vv. 60-66), while others remained at His side and continued to walk with Him (vv. 67-71).
1. The scandalized disciples who turned away from Christ. First we hear their objection (vv. 60), then the Christ’s response (vv. 61-66).
The disciples’ objection. “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” (Jn 6:60) We note three things. First, concerning “Many of his disciples.” Christ had many disciples among the Jews; many believed in Him and followed Him, but many others fell away. But the twelve were special in that they had given up everything to follow Christ; He chose them to be His apostles, sending them into the world to baptize with water and the Holy Spirit and to teach in His name, as He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19).
Second, concerning “This is a hard saying.” Christ’s recent statements, for example, His declaration, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53), disturbed many of them. That is why they commented, “This is a hard saying.” These are the ones whom Christ spoke about in the Parable of the Sower, when He said that the seeds sown on rocky soil “are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Lk 8:13). Christ said elsewhere, “many are called, but few are chosen” (Mt 22:14). These disgruntled disciples were called, but not chosen, whereas the twelve were both called and chosen.
A thing is said to be “hard” if it is difficult to divide or if it offers resistance in some way to reasonable force. A saying is said to be “hard” when the intellect offers resistance because it cannot understand it, or when the will offers resistance because the saying does not please it. The words of Christ were “hard” for their intellects because they were carnal; they understood material bread, but could not grasp the concept of spiritual bread. Therefore, eating the Bread of Life, which is Christ, seemed like cannibalism to them, and was, therefore, repugnant to them. The words of Christ were “hard” for their wills because Christ implied that He is divine, when He said that the living bread “comes down from heaven” (vs. 50, 58). Although many of them believed that He was a prophet sent by God, they did not believe that He was God’s Son; that is, they did not believe that He was divine. Some said of Christ, “His letters are weighty and strong” (2 Cor 10:10); that is, His teaching was “weighty” because it was too hard for their intellects to understand, and it was “strong” because it was too hard for their wills to accept. Sirach said of Wisdom: “She seems very harsh to the uninstructed; a weakling will not remain with her. She will weigh him down like a heavy testing stone, and he will not be slow to cast her off. (Sir 6:20-21)
Third, concerning their question, “Who can listen to it?” They spoke this, not as a question requiring an answer, but as an excuse for leaving Him. They had chosen to become Christ’s disciples, yet now, they were leaving Him because they did not like what He was teaching. They felt they had to justify their turnabout. They blamed their defection upon their Teacher, not upon their own inability to understand and to accept His teaching. They used His most recent words as an excuse to leave Him. Concerning these shallow disciples, the Proverb reads, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prv 18:2).
Christ’s response to their objection. Now that we have heard the disciples’ objection, we hear Christ’s response; and this comes in three parts. First, Christ acknowledged their scandal (v. 61); then, He removed the cause of their scandal (vv. 62-63); and finally, He gave the true cause of their leaving Him (vv. 64-65).
Christ first acknowledged their scandal: “But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, ‘Do you take offense at this?’” (Jn 6:61) Here we can make five points. First, Christ in His divinity knew everything that was in their hearts, as the Evangelist had said: “he himself knew what was in man” (Jn 2:25), for “[God searches the heart and soul]” (Ps 7:9). Second, as Isaiah had foretold, Christ’s teaching became “a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel” (Is 8:14). The Apostle noted, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). A stumbling block (Gk. skandalon) is something which causes a person’s downfall. Christ’s hard words to the people in the synagogue at Capernaum were for them a stumbling block, they turned away from Him because of these words. Third, Christ spoke in this way because the people were under the misapprehension that His living bread was material bread. They had asked Him for an endless supply of material bread, whereas He came down from heaven to give us spiritual food, bread that gives eternal life. Fourth, their scandal was caused, not by Christ speaking the truth, but by their inability to understand the truth and their unwillingness to accept His word. If they had been of a different mindset, they might have questioned Christ in order to learn, as the apostles questioned Him on other occasions, or as the Virgin Mary questioned the angel Gabriel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” (Lk 1:34) Fifth, St. Augustine suggested that this incident serves as an example to teachers of the faith, to be patient when they are belittled for what they teach, and to be comforted by the fact that Christ’s disciples disparaged Him on account of what He said.
Now that Christ had acknowledged their scandal, He removed the cause of their scandal. They were scandalized, not because He had healed the lame man or had fed the five thousand, for the prophet Elisha had healed Naaman of leprosy (2 Kgs 2:1-19) and fed a hundred men with twenty barley loaves (2 Kgs 4:42-44); rather, they were scandalized because Jesus had implied that He was divine, for He had said that the living bread, which He identified with Himself, “comes down from heaven” (vv. 50, 58). These disciples believed that He was the son of Joseph, but not the Son of God.
To overcome their scandal, Christ made a hypothetical suggestion: “Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” (Jn 6:62). This can be interpreted in two ways. First, according to one interpretation, Christ was pointing out their lack of faith. It was as if He were saying: If only you would see me ascending back into heaven from where I came, then you would have no reason to doubt that I am God, for “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man” (Jn 3:13). Because sight is more certain than hearing, visual proof is more sought after than the spoken word. Christ proved Himself in a similar way to Nathanael, when He pointed out that the young man had come to believe in Him only because Christ had told Him something that was hidden from plain sight: namely, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” (Jn 1:50). And just as Christ promised Nathanael, saying, “You shall see greater things than these” (Jn 1:50), so too did He say that the Jews in Capernaum would “see the Son of man ascending.” Indeed, this happened forty days after His resurrection, when, in the sight of His disciples, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Second, according to St. Augustine, Christ said this to demonstrate that He was giving His flesh as spiritual food, not as material food, as one eats the flesh of an animal. For if His human body ascends and leaves the earth, but His food remains on earth as He had promised, then the Bread of Life cannot be material food that may be divided up, but spiritual food which is indivisible.
To ascend from earth to heaven pertains to Christ’s human nature, not to His divine nature, for in His divinity, He forever lives with the Father in heaven. It was fitting that the Divine Person of Christ should return to heaven, to where He had always been in His divinity. But when He ascended, His human body and soul went to where it had never been before. Thus, He said, “I came from the Father,” inasmuch as I am eternally begotten of Him, “and have come into the world,” by assuming human nature and taking flesh from the Virgin Mary. Then He said, “I am leaving the world and going to the Father,” that is, My human body and soul is going to a place where it had never been (Jn 16:28).
“It is the [Spirit] that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” (Jn 6:63a). This was interpreted in two ways. First, according to St. John Chrysostom, a person can choose to understand Christ’s words either spiritually or materially. If a person understands Christ’s words according to their spiritual meaning, then the Holy Spirit will give him life; but if he understands them in a material way, then Christ’s teaching will do him no good, for “if you live according to the flesh you will die” (Rom 8:13). The Jews at Capernaum took Christ’s words in a material way, as pertaining to His human flesh. They thought that Christ wanted them to eat His flesh in the same way that they eat the flesh of animals. But though the true flesh of Christ is really present in the Eucharist, it is consumed spiritually and in a divine way for the benefit of both the soul and the body, whereas an animal’s flesh is consumed and digested for the benefit of the body alone. To indicate that His words concerning the living bread were intended to have a spiritual meaning, rather than a material meaning, He said, “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63b). The mysteries of Christ give eternal life. Second, according to St. Augustine, the phrase, “flesh is of no avail,” refers to Christ’s flesh, for Christ’s flesh of itself is of no more benefit than any other human flesh. But because Christ’s human body and soul are united with the Word of God in hypostatic union, His flesh is of great profit to those who receive the Eucharist in sincerity, for by receiving Christ in the sacrament of the altar, we abide in God through the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love, as St. John said, “we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit” (1 Jn 4:13). In other words, Christ’s flesh by itself cannot account for the communicant obtaining eternal life, for “the flesh is of no avail”; but rather, His flesh offers eternal life because it has been united with the divinity and, hence, with the Holy Spirit, for “it is the [Spirit] that gives life.” Thus, St. Paul said, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:25), that is to say, let us do good works. Furthermore, as the body lives its bodily life on account of its soul, which animates and informs it, the soul lives its spiritual life on account of the Holy Spirit. All of this has been foretold: “[You shall send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth]” (Ps 104:30). Thus, “[You shall send forth your Spirit]” tells us that the Holy Spirit is sent to us in His divine mission; “[they shall be created]” tells us that the soul lives on account of Him; and “[you shall renew the face of the earth]” tells us that the soul that is alive does good works in the kingdom of God.
Next, Christ gave the true cause of their leaving Him: namely, their unbelief. “But there are some of you that do not believe” (Jn 6:64a). He did not say that they did not understand, but rather, that they did not believe in Him. For it was not their lack of understanding that caused them to disbelieve; rather, it was their lack of faith that prevented them from understanding. Their lack of faith became for them a stumbling block that prevented them from accepting the Bread of Life and eternal life through the Eucharist. The words of Isaiah were sadly fulfilled in them: “[if you will not believe, you shall not endure]” (Is 7:9). They acted just as did their ancestors, of whom it had been written: “they despised the pleasant land, having no faith in his promise. They murmured in their tents, and did not obey the voice of the Lord.” (Ps 106:24-25)
“For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him” (Jn 6:64b). The Evangelist added this line in order to dispel any suggestion that Christ learned of their defection only recently, for Christ indeed “knew from the first,” that is, from eternity, those who would believe in Him and those who would reject Him. “Before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him” (Heb 4:13).
Then Christ gave the true reason for their unbelief: “And he said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father’” (Jn 6:65). The reason why they had abandoned Christ was that they did not believe in Him, and the reason for their unbelief was because God had withdrawn His grace from them, for no one is drawn to God unless God first gives him the grace to believe. This is a reiteration of what Christ said above: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (Jn 6:44). He repeated it in order to emphasize the fact that He is the natural Son of God, not the natural son of Joseph, as they had mistakenly thought when they asked, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph?” (Jn 6:42)
The Evangelist mentioned the result of their unbelief: “After this many of his disciples drew back” (Jn 6:66). They “drew back” from the faith, that is, abandoned the faith which they had once possessed, for they had followed Christ on account of the miracles He had done, and they ate His bread when He fed the five thousand, and they followed Him across the sea to the synagogue at Capernaum, but now they turned away. This attests to the obstinacy of many of the Jews in Galilee at that time. For even though Christ explained the true meaning of His words and successfully answered their objections concerning the origin of spiritual food and the eating of spiritual food, many still refused to believe.
Some turn away from the faith absolutely, by purposefully following the devil, whereas others turn from the faith incompletely. St. Paul mentioned that certain young widows “have already strayed after Satan” (1 Tm 5:15), that is, they have turned away from the faith absolutely. Satan himself turned away from the faith absolutely, for he is a fallen angel. After Satan had tempted our Lord in the desert, Christ chastised him with the chilling words: “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:10). Simon Peter drew back from Christ, not absolutely, but incompletely, for he later returned to the Lord with zeal and spiritual vigor. Thus, when our Lord chastised a backsliding Peter, He did not say “begone,” as if Peter were hopelessly lost. But rather, He said, “Get behind me, Satan!”; that is to say, cast aside the stumbling block you have placed between yourself and Me, Simon Peter, for as you are, “You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mt 16:23).
The Evangelist added that the former disciples “no longer [walked] about with him” (Jn 6:66). Faith in Christ is not enough for salvation. The true believer must also “walk” with Christ, that is, he must live a virtuous life by performing good works. The prophet Micah said, “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8).
2. The disciples who remained with Christ. After the other disciples had left Him, Christ examined the remaining twelve to determine whether or not they were willing to remain with Him. “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’” (Jn 6:67). He asked this for two reasons. First, so that they may not be proud in thinking that it was due to their goodness that they remained loyal to Christ. The fact that Christ asked them this question implied that they were not above suspicion of disloyalty. Second, Christ asked them this question so that none of them would feel like they were doing Christ a favor by remaining. It sometimes happens that people do things which they dislike, or they refrain from doing things they would like to do, in order to avoid shame and embarrassment. Christ removed any possible embarrassment by removing any necessity for remaining with Him. He left it up to each one’s judgment whether or not to stay. The fact that Christ did not beg them to stay indicates that He did not need them. Yet, by asking them if they wanted to stay, He made it clear that they were welcome to walk with Him on the path to life eternal.
“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are [Christ the Son of God]‘” (Jn 6:68-69). The fact that Peter spoke up tells us two things: first, he had a special affection for Christ, and second, he spoke for the twelve.
St. Peter did three things when he spoke up on this occasion. First, he extolled Christ’s greatness when he said, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” These were like the words of the Psalmist: “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Ps 139:7) For who would be better to follow than Christ, Who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6)? It is as Moses said: “Who is like thee, O Lord, among the gods?” (Ex 15:11) Second, St. Peter praised Christ’s teaching when he confessed, “You have the words of eternal life.” Moses and the prophets spoke God’s words, for they were His spokesmen, but they rarely spoke words that promised eternal life. Christ said, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life” (Jn 3:36), and again, “he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” (Jn 6:47-48). Third, St. Peter professed faith in Christ when he said, “we have believed, and have come to know, that you are [Christ the Son of God].” He professed his faith concerning two doctrines in particular: the mystery of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation. St. Peter professed belief in the mystery of the Blessed Trinity when he called Jesus the “Son of God.” For if He is a Son, then He must have a Father, and the Holy Spirit is the Love between Father and Son. St. Peter professed belief in the Incarnation when he called Jesus the “Christ,” the Messiah, the anointed one. Christ was anointed by the Holy Spirit, Who is an invisible oil. He was anointed in His human nature, not in His divine nature, for one who is anointed by the Holy Spirit is made better in some way, and there is no way to make the divine nature any better than it is.
Note that St. Peter said “we have believed” before he said “have come to know,” because believing comes before knowing, as the Lord said, “[if you will not believe, you shall not endure]” (Is 7:9). Thus, St. Augustine said, credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand), for understanding is a reward for having faith; by faith we arrive at knowledge, not vice versa.
Then Christ corrected St. Peter’s answer. “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?’” (Jn 6:70). Peter had spoken on behalf of the twelve. When he said, “we have believed,” he thought that all of them would attain the eternal life which Christ had promised. But Peter did not know that one of them would later betray Christ and give Him up to the authorities to be crucified. Peter’s trust of his companions is commendable, but Christ’s wisdom is even more admirable, for, unlike Peter, Christ could see what was hidden in men’s hearts.
Concerning this future betrayer, it had been said, “through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it” (Wis 2:24). At His last supper, after Christ had handed the morsel of bread to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, Satan entered into Judas (Jn 13:27), and Judas became like Satan in his malicious intent.
One might suggest that Jesus made a mistake in calling Judas to be a disciple. This can be answered in two ways. First, according to St. John Chrysostom, Judas was chosen for some good he would do in the present, not for the evil Christ knew he would do in the future. This demonstrates that being chosen for a good task does not preclude the exercise of one’s free will, for though Judas was chosen for a good task, he later chose to betray Christ. Thus, St. Paul cautioned, “let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). Second, according to St. Augustine, who disagreed with Chrysostom on this point, Christ chose Judas precisely for the evil he knew Judas would do. Christ made good use of Judas’ act of betrayal, for by allowing Himself to be handed over to be crucified, He atoned for the sins of mankind, and thereby became our Redeemer. It is a hallmark of a good person to somehow find a way to turn evil into good. This is just what Christ had done with Judas’ betrayal. Third, according to St. Ambrose, Christ chose Judas, whom He knew to be evil, so that we might be consoled when our friends betray us. Fourth, again according to St. Augustine, Judas was not chosen for his goodness, nor for his evil, but to bring the number of the apostles to twelve. It was fitting that they were twelve in number, because they would preach about the three persons of the Blessed Trinity to peoples in the four corners of the earth. Since three times four equals twelve, the twelve apostles fittingly signify their apostolate. The significance of this number is further demonstrated when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas, so that the number might be brought up to twelve.
One might wonder why none of the twelve questioned the Lord about His ominous and provocative statement, “one of you is a devil.” We may make two observations in this regard. First, at the Lord’s last supper, when Christ had said, “I say to you, one of you will betray me” (Jn 13:21), St. Peter immediately asked Christ’s beloved disciple, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks” (Jn 13:24), and the beloved disciple in turn asked Jesus, “Lord, who is it?” (Jn 13:25) But in Jn 6:70, when Christ had said to the twelve, “one of you is a devil,” no one pressed the matter. In both Jn 6:70 and Jn 13:21, Christ was apparently referring to the same evil man, Judas Iscariot. What distinguishes Jn 6:70 from Jn 13:21 is that, in the first pericope, Christ’s remark is of a general nature, whereas in the second, it is specific. The reason Peter pursued the matter at the Last Supper was because Christ was speaking of a specific evil action: namely, that one of the twelve was about to betray Him. However, when Christ said in Jn 6:70 that one of them was a devil, this could be taken in a general sense to mean any kind of malice. So they were not unduly alarmed that one of them was “a devil,” for each one of them confessed to being a sinner. Second, we should notice that after Christ had reprimanded Peter by saying to him, “Get behind me, Satan” (Mt 16:23), the apostles became more acutely aware of their own human weakness. That is perhaps why they were anxious to learn the identity of the betrayer that Christ mentioned in Jn 13:21, whereas Christ’s statement in Jn 6:70 took place long before He had reprimanded Peter.
Finally, the Evangelist annotated Christ’s corrective remark with this explanation: “He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was to betray him” (Jn 6:71).