(For the first post in this series click here.)
John 6:37, 44 and 65
All that the Father gives me will come to me…
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him….
And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
Congratulations to both of us! We have made it to the end of this extremely long series of posts on John chapter 6. I believe that those who are seeking to understand the context of John chapter 6 will not be able to ignore the abundance of evidence that the context provides for my interpretation. I am certain there are many subtle mistakes in my understanding of theses verses. I know this because I keep finding such mistakes as I meditate more on the context and wording of these verses. But I am confident that my basic perspective on these verses is fully supported by the Scriptural and historical context of John’s Gospel. This present series of posts is merely a seed (though obviously not as small as a mustard seed;) for those who are seeking to understand Jesus’ teaching in John chapter 6. I expect that those with honest hearts will not rest until they have searched the book of John to see whether or not these things are so. And I am confident that even if I have failed to make Jesus’ words completely clear, God’s word will not.
In the last two posts I gave my interpretation on the three verses in question. That is what those paragraphs in bold were all about if you didn’t notice;) I tried to spell out what the verses were actually saying in their historical context. I hinted also at why Jesus was making these statements, which I will touch on a little more in this post. And then I will conclude by sharing some thoughts about how we can apply these verses to our day and age.
These verses were given in the context of an ongoing debate between Jesus and Jews who claimed to follow God while at the same time refusing to follow him. This debate is most noticeable from John chapter 5 through chapter 10. We, well at least I, concluded that in John 6:37 Jesus is saying that the Father would give his faithful followers to the Son. The certainty with which Jesus could say that these people would come to him was based on the fact that those who loved the Father would naturally accept his testimony about his Son. John 6:44 and 65 don’t focus so much on who will be given (i.e. covenant keeping Jews of Jesus’ day), but on how the Father would “give” them to the Son. My conclusion was that God would “draw” them by “teaching” them (John 6:45). This spiritual revelation was given through the testimony of John, the Scriptures and through the miracles and words of Jesus. Those listening to the Father, willing to do his will, would be able to recognize the voice of their master and follow him where he was leading them (John 7:16-17). Only those who were walking in obedience to the Father could follow him to the Son, all rebels would remain estranged from God (John 3:19-21).
Who does God give to the Son? Those that belong to him (John 17:6)
Who belongs to God? Those who follow God (John 8:47)
Can those who don’t follow God be drawn by him to the Son? No, not possible (John 6:44)
Why not? Because those who don’t follow his lead can’t be led by him (John 6:45)
Can those who don’t follow the Father start to follow him? Yes, if they repent (Mark 1:15)
Above I have summarized the interpretation of these three verses. But we must take a step back for the bigger picture in order to understand the purpose of these comments. As I noted in my last post, Jesus was not saying these comments as part of his doctrinal discourse. As in John 5:34, Jesus was making these statements so that his hearers would be saved. He was not preaching fatalism and telling unbelievers, “Too bad God didn’t choose you, tough luck!” Instead he was rebuking them in order to spur them to action. He was trying to prick their hearts and humble their pride so that they could receive the grace of God.
I will give a paraphrase for each of the three verses to show how his listeners (who were not meditating on doctrines of decrees or any such things) would have heard his statements. We must remember that this context was similar to those who were the original audience of John’s Gospel. Both Jesus and John’s readers were facing rejection from men who claimed to be members of God’s chosen people, but in reality were servants of the devil.
“God gives me all those people who belong to him. They will all come to me. The reason you do not come to me is because God is not giving you to me. Why? Because you do not belong to God!”
“No one can truly come to me without being drawn by God’s influence. You don’t come to me because you are not open to his influence. You are not listening to God!”
“God gives people the ability to come to me by supplying them with divine revelation. The reason you can’t come to me is that you are not being led by God, but by the devil!”
All of these are meant to challenge his hearers to repent. He was saying, “You are not right with God no matter what you claim. I was sent by God and you are missing what God is doing right in front of your eyes because you are in rebellion to God. Repent of your rebellion!”
If we start with a faulty interpretation based on Reformed Theology instead of the historical and Scriptural context, we will miss Jesus’ point all together. Most Calvinists I have discussed Reformed Theology with have told me that the doctrines of TULIP are not meant to be proclaimed in an evangelistic setting, but to those who have already received Christ. They have told me that we are supposed to preach the Cross of Jesus and repentance to the lost, not unconditional election and irresistible grace. The reason they give for this is very practical. They have told me and I agree, that preaching such doctrines to the lost would confuse them. But what they seem to miss is that if their interpretation of John 6:37, 44 and 65 is correct, they have no biblical support for their practice. If Jesus is teaching the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace in these verses he is teaching it to unbelievers. He is telling them that they cannot believe because they are not chosen by God and can by no means come to faith in him. Of course this scenario would be repeated in John 8 when Jesus calls the Pharisees the children of the devil and in John 10 when he says they are not his sheep. If these passages are used to teach TULIP it must be admitted that they were spoken to unbelievers. In that case my Calvinist brethren should not shy away from preaching TULIP to everyone they evangelize.
Interpreting John 6:37, 44 and 65 in the way Calvinism would suggest means that Jesus was telling certain people they were without hope and this because God had eternally decided to leave them in their helplessly sinful state. This is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ reason for speaking to the Pharisees in John 5:34, “I say these things so that you may be saved.” Jesus’ debate with the unbelieving Jews was for the purpose of turning Israel from their wickedness, not in order to confirm their unchangeable fate (Acts 3:26, 5:31). Jesus was rebuking men for their willful rebellion, not telling them that this rebellion was “God’s purpose for them” (Luke 7:30, Matthew 23:37). He was proclaiming the message he always proclaimed, “Repent or perish” (Luke 13:3, Mark 1:15).
These verses must be interpreted in their original historical context. That context is the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. John is showing that many who thought they were members of God’s people actually did not belong to him, but instead were rebels. What we cannot do is take these verse out of their context and say they are teaching that God has certain eternally and unconditionally elected individuals that he has been giving to Christ by means of irresistible grace over the last 2,000 years. This is a very unfortunate error that has given many an excuse for rebellion as well as brought despair to many other souls longing to come to Christ but believing that it has not been “granted” by God’s divine decrees.
The only way we could apply these verses in the exact same way they were intended would be to assume that God has many faithful followers throughout the world that have not yet heard the Gospel of Christ. I don’t know where I stand on such an assumption. For this assumption to be true there would have to be some particularly ignorant Jews out there who are following the God of Israel in covenant faithfulness. Or we would have to assume that there are some individuals living in pagan cultures that have made individual covenants with God as Abraham did before the Law. Both of these cases seem far-fetched to me, but these are the kind of situations that would need to exist in order to apply John 6:37, 44 and 65 in our day in the same sense in which they were spoken.
Though it is unlikely that we can apply these verses in the way suggested in the previous paragraph, there are some important principles we can draw from these verses. After drawing out these principles we can properly apply them in our generation.
The first principle we learn is that rebellion in one’s heart chokes out divine revelation. I was a devout Atheist before I came to faith in Christ. I didn’t go to church and I don’t remember being witnessed to, though I am sure many tried to break through my stubborn pride with the Gospel. But one night 20 years ago God, by his Holy Spirit, suddenly showed me very clearly that he existed. I instinctively knew that the God who was making himself known to me was the God of Jesus Christ, but my first thought was one of fear. Not fear that I had offended God by my sinful lifestyle, but fear that I would become a “Jesus Freak.” Within a moment of receiving direct revelation that God was real, I vowed in my heart not to accept Christianity. That next week I was happy with my new “faith in God.” I felt more spiritual as I smoked my daily joint. I knew God existed, and I knew his name was not Jesus.
But thank God he loved me enough to come back again a week later with a stronger rebuke. I was driving in my car when suddenly the presence of God overwhelmed me. The physical sensation of God’s manifest presence came with a clear revelation, “Jesus Christ came from heaven, and unless I served him the rest of my life, I would go to hell forever!” This time I was not afraid of what people would think, I was afraid of God. This fear led me to immediately renounce my own will, and vow to do whatever God wanted. With this new goal in life, believing in Jesus and whatever the Bible might say came natural. I hadn’t read the Bible, nor had I grown up in Church, so I was not sure about all that Jesus and the Bible taught. But that night, I accepted all of it, whatever “it” might be.
Accepting divine revelation is not primarily a matter of the intellect. If the heart is not willing to follow God’s will, then whatever God reveals will be rejected. Sinful rebellion will always choke out divine revelation about heavenly things. This is why God commands all men everywhere to repent. Once one repents of moral depravity and turns to God, the revelation will not fall on the hard path only to be snatched up by the devil. We must not try to convince unbelievers of the reasonableness of Christianity. We must go for the jugular. We must deal with their moral depravity, not their intellectual misunderstandings. Of course we should answer people who have genuine questions, but we must realize that most questions when answered will just lead to another question. The reason is that the heart does not want to accept Christ because it has not yet submitted to God’s absolute moral authority.
The second principle John 6:37, 44 and 65 teach us is that Jesus is the litmus test for those who follow God. I live in the largest Muslim country in the world. In my city, Jakarta, there are also a large number of Buddhists, Catholics, and Christians (both genuine and nominal). One thing I haven’t come across in seven years is an Indonesian Atheist. Everyone here believes in “God.” When I share the Gospel here the most common response is, “I serve God in my way and you in yours.”
The Pharisees were very devout to their religion. The problem was that they didn’t know God. They claimed to follow the God of Israel, and many of them were surely sincere in believing that they did. But Jesus made it clear to them that they were rebels. How could they follow God and yet reject and hate his Son. Jesus was the litmus test given by God to divide the sheep from the goats and the wheat from the tares. The Israelites who followed God in truth gladly followed his Son (John 3:21). But those who followed the carnal desires of the devil could not accept Jesus (John 8:42-44).
In the same way we can know that no matter how devout one seems to be in their particular religion, if they will not accept Christ, they cannot possibly be true followers of God. Jesus has God’s seal of approval on him; those who are following God will recognize this instinctively. We can say confidently that those who do not have the Son do not have the Father either. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, if one truly turns to the living God, he will gladly accept the testimony of Jesus Christ. Like a noble Berean he might need to search the Scriptures and ask many difficult questions, but he will do this from a desire to understand more, not from a desire to make excuses for rejecting Christianity.
Please understand I am not suggesting that there are people following God before hearing the Gospel. As I said above, I don’t know where I stand on that issue. I choose to err on the side of caution and say that there are no such people. The theological principle I’m drawing from John chapter 6 is that a person who claims to follow God (i.e. Jew, Muslim and Buddhist) but denies Christ, is not truly following God. In other words, Christ’s teaching in John chapter 6 confirms that universalism is false. The true and living God is revealed in Jesus Christ. We can boldly tell people that they can only come to God through Jesus Christ; he is the Way, the Truth and the Life.