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Occasional Letters: Verily, Verily

D Newell, Glasgow

Growing old is a funny business. The waistline expands, the hairline (if there still is one) recedes, the hearing fails, the eyes dim, the voice cracks, and the stomach gripes. And yet there may be unlooked-for benefits. Someone pointed out to me (now, whoever was it?) that loss of short-term memory has a cheering social by-product because one is constantly meeting new people. Similarly, those of us who love detective stories can devour them again and again with the freshness of a first-time encounter unsullied by prior knowledge of the denouement. And even if, in the goodness of God, our mind is still as sharp as a meat-cleaver, the same thing may be true in our reading of Scripture. That is to say, chapters of long pleasurable familiarity can still yield invigorating spiritual enjoyment as we become aware of riches hitherto unrecognised. It's like suddenly stumbling upon a new vista along a well-trodden country pathway, or hearing a delicious theme unexpectedly echoed as an undercurrent in a much-loved piece of music. There is always more to uncover in God's inexhaustible Word. Let me share with you a few things I've just noticed in John 6.

The well-known miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is followed by a remarkable teaching discourse on the bread of life, delivered, one presumes, both in the open air and in a local synagogue (vv.25,59). This great message, however, resulted in a startling reduction in the crowds who had hitherto pursued the Saviour. It is, frankly, a pivotal moment in the Gospel. The chapter begins with multitudes flocking after the Lord and ends simply with the twelve, of whom one was bogus. The truth of God, we should remember, is never going to appeal to the masses because "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God" (1 Cor 2.14). One way into this lengthy and difficult chapter is to spotlight the four "Verily, verily" statements which are spaced out through the episode like stepping stones. This arresting introductory formula, found only on the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ and announcing information which is trustworthy ("verily"), authoritative ("I say unto you", the Saviour's equivalent to the Old Testament "thus saith the Lord"), and urgent (the doubled "verily") is, in its 25 occurrences, unique to John's Gospel. In chapter 6 it appears in verses 26,32,47 and 53. Can we trace a progression in these four announcements? I think we can, as we observe the Saviour leading His audience away from their obsession with the material ("loaves") to concentrate upon what really matters – the spiritual and eternal ("life").

Let's consider the stepping stone statements one by one. Here's the first:

Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting LIFE, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed (6.26-27).

The crowd anxiously sought Him, but for entirely the wrong reasons: there was no genuine spiritual appetite in their souls. They had relished a free meal and greedily they craved more. What the Saviour does therefore is to correct their misapprehension and point them in the right direction. In exposing their motives He incidentally proved His deity, for God alone knows "the hearts of all the children of men" (1 Kings 8.39). Although they had benefited physically from His miraculous provision of food they had not properly interpreted the purpose of the sign, which was to draw attention to His person as the answer to men's deepest needs. They had been taken up with loaves when they ought to have been hungering after eternal life. The first statement, then, underlines the pre-eminently spiritual blessing offered by the Lord Jesus. How easy it is even for believers to become distractingly preoccupied with the transient and material when our real blessings are in the heavenlies in Christ!

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth LIFE unto the world (6.32-33).

The second statement takes us further. The Jewish multitudes were well aware of their religious privilege (were they not God's elect nation?) but the Lord again had to adjust their focus. Instead of manna (which in any case was a gift from God, not Moses, in whom they tended to trust) God was now offering them the One who was Himself the fulfilment of what manna merely pictured. However – and here's the key point – this gift was a universal blessing. They spoke proudly of "Our fathers" (v.31), but the Lord Jesus pointed out that "the bread of God" came to give life not just to Israel but "unto the world". To signal the amazing extension of divine mercy to non-Jews John the narrator had earlier added an inspired commentary on the Lord's interview with Nicodemus "the teacher of Israel", noting that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son" (3.16). Saved Gentiles have every reason to rejoice in the overflow of God's grace (Acts 13.48).

Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting LIFE (6.47).

This third announcement must be one of the most plain-speaking in the whole book. Completely devoid of any reference to Old Testament typology, it does not even employ metaphorical language. The truth it summarises is that the Lord Jesus offers an individual blessing which must be appropriated by faith. The plural pronouns of the previous statements ("you") are replaced by the emphatically singular "He". Spiritual life is not the automatic product of family relationship or ethnic origin but springs from wholehearted personal confidence in Christ. And, amazingly, it is a present benefit ("hath"), to be enjoyed in the here and now. Are we living daily in the joy of a positive relationship with God?

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no LIFE in you (6.53).

In this final statement the Lord responds to the hostile reaction of the Jewish synagogue congregation. The invitation to eat His flesh (vv.51-52) had provoked intense debate as to its meaning. In reality, there need have been no confusion because, before retreating into metaphor, the Savour had spoken with dazzling clarity (vv.29,35,47). But those who disregard God's Word in its crystal transparency find themselves faced with the brick wall of parables or pictures, just as Old Testament Israel, rejecting local prophets, was forced to listen to the gabble of foreign invaders (Is 28.9-13). To those who wilfully refuse to understand, God will speak still more unintelligibly. But this they must not miss: the Lord offered an essential blessing. Without personal faith in Christ, men are altogether lifeless. In a world where various spurious forms of "spirituality" and religion compete for attention, it is imperative to realise that there is no alternative to God's way of salvation through the atoning death of His beloved Son.

Each stepping stone through John 6 leads the reader to a fuller appreciation of His marvellous goodness: from Christ alone flow benefits which are spiritual, universal, individual and essential. If you're feeling low, why not stimulate your memory and warm your heart by rereading this rich chapter? You may even, like me, notice gems you overlooked before.

To be continued.


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