Why John 6:25-71 Does Not Prove The Deity Of Messiah

John chapter 6 is one of the main passages utilized by Christian apologists to support the belief of the deity of Jesus. A number of statements made by Jesus in this chapter do seem to give credence to this idea. It boils down to this – Jesus claimed to have come down from heaven. No where is it recorded in this chapter that Jesus claimed to be God, but just that he came down from heaven. From this the apologists make a number of assumptions which are based on the presupposition that Jesus is God.

Assumptions of the Apologists

The first assumption is that Jesus was speaking literally instead of figuratively. The second assumption is that by saying that he literally came down from heaven, Jesus was making a claim to deity. The third assumption is that the people hearing Jesus speak also thought Jesus was speaking literally rather than figuratively. The final assumption is that the twelve apostles understood Jesus’ claim to be God and believed him. Let’s go through these four assumptions to see if they are in fact substantiated by the text.

Assumption 1

Upon close examination of the text it appears that the only good reason for taking Jesus’ words literally is that such a reading supports the ‘orthodox’ presupposition that Jesus existed in heaven as God before being incarnated on earth as man. But if one did not hold this presupposition what reasons would one have for taking Jesus’ words in a literal rather than a figurative sense? The first clue that Jesus’ words about coming down from heaven should not to be taken literally is that they are in response to the disciples’ mention of God’s provision of manna for their forefathers {6:31}. In Exodus 16:4 we read:

“Then YHWH said to Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you.’ “

Did YHWH mean that the manna he would provide for the people literally came from heaven i.e. the dwelling place of God? Was the manna literally in heaven and then brought down to earth? Well, some may say yes, but I say no. First off, YHWH said he would rain down the bread, yet no where in the subsequent narrative is it said that the people saw bread falling out of the sky. Instead, in vv. 13-14, we are told that:

“. . . and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor.”

This is presumably the way the manna arrived every morning for the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. Never once, in the rest of the Pentateuch, is it said that manna actually fell down out of the sky, yet God said he would rain down bread from heaven. What we should infer from this is that YHWH’s words are not to be understood literally but figuratively. A similar type of expression used by God is found in Malachi:

“Test me in this (i.e. in paying tithes),” says YHWH of hosts, : and see if I will not throw open the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing to the degree that you will not have enough room for it.

Mal. 3:10

The promised blessing was that of a bountiful crop, i.e. God would see to it that their crops did not fail but produced a great harvest. The language of the “windows of heaven” being opened and a blessing being poured out is clearly figurative language. In the same way, the language of “rain[ing] down bread from heaven” is meant to figuratively denote God’s provision. But what of other passages which speak of this bread from heaven? In Nehemiah 9:15, Nehemiah, in recalling the account while in prayer, simply repeats the figurative language used by YHWH – bread from heaven = God’s provision of food. The same can be said of Ps. 105:40. But what about Ps. 78:24-25; surely this can’t be taken figuratively.

“. . . [He] opened the doors of heaven; he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate the food of angels . . .”

Ps. 78:23b-25a

First, the phrase “opened the doors of heaven” is almost exactly like the Malachi passage, which we saw must be regarded as figurative language. The phrase “rained down manna” is taken from YHWH’s own words in Ex. 16:4, and should be understood figuratively, for the reasons noted above. The remainder of the passage, I suggest, is simply hyperbolic language, which is often found in such poetic passages. Because manna was unknown to the Israelites {see Deut 8:3} the psalmist poetically speaks of it as the “grain of heaven” and the “food of angels.” Even today we may speak of someone whom God has used to bring blessing into our lives as “an angel from heaven,” not at all intending that anyone should understand us literally.

The point is that the mention of the “bread from heaven” in Jn. 6:31 is the impetus for Jesus’ declaration that he is the “bread of God . . . who comes down from heaven.” It is reasonable, therefore, to take the words of Jesus figuratively, just like the words regarding the manna being “from heaven” should be taken figuratively.

The next clue that Jesus is not speaking literally is the fact that he refers to himself as ‘bread’ which is clearly a metaphor. He also speaks of feeding on himself as the ‘bread of life’, which again, is clearly figurative language. What the apologists want us to believe is that Jesus is speaking figuratively when he says he is bread and that we need to feed on him, but that he is speaking literally when he says he came down from heaven. Most of these apologists are Protestant Christians, who would likely see Roman Catholicism’s literal understanding of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood, as ridiculous, yet they will insist that we should take Jesus’ words about coming down from heaven literally.

The next clue is found in v. 51:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world.”

Jn. 6:51

Now do any of these apologists, or does any orthodox Christian for that matter, believe that Jesus’ flesh was literally in heaven and then came down from heaven to be born from Mary. Absolutely not! The orthodox teaching is that Jesus received his human nature, i.e. his flesh, from Mary. This can only be understood as figurative language.

So if Jesus being the bread that came down from heaven is not to be taken literally, what exactly does it mean? It is simply saying that the man Jesus is God’s provision for all men, by which they can obtain immortality.

Another possible way to understand this figurative language is from the perspective of non-literal pre-existence. Ancient Jewish sages regarded things which were in the purpose and plan of God, and which were to be realized at some point in history, to have a sort of pre-existence in heaven with God. This pre-existence was not literal but ideal, in the mind of God. Norwegian theologian and professor Sigmund Mowinckel, in his work titled, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and Later Judaism, wrote this concerning pre-existence in Jewish thought:

That any expression or vehicle of God’s will for the world, His saving counsel and purpose, was present in His mind, or His “Word”, from the beginning, is a natural way of saying that it is not fortuitous, but the due unfolding and expression of God’s own being. This attribution of preexistence indicates religious importance of the highest order. Rabbinic theology speaks of the Law, of God’s throne of glory, of Israel . . . as things which were already present with [God] before the creation of the world. The same is also true of the Messiah. It is said that his name was present with God in heaven beforehand, that it was created before the world, and that it is eternal. But the reference here is not to genuine pre-existence in the strict and literal sense . . . It is an ideal pre-existence that is meant . . . of the Messiah. It is his ‘name’, not Messiah himself, that is said to have been present with God before creation. In Pesikta Rabbati 152b it is said that “from the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created.” This means that from all eternity it was the will of God that the Messiah should come into existence, and should do his work in the world to fulfill God’s eternal saving purpose.     p.334

E. G. Selwyn in his commentary on 1 Peter wrote: “When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already ‘existing’ in heaven.”

Emil Schurer in The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, Vol.2 p.522 wrote: “In Jewish thinking, everything truly valuable preexisted in heaven.”

Catholic theologian Karl-Josef Kuschel, on p. 218 of Born Before All Time?, wrote: ” … in the synagogue a particular kind of pre-existence was always associated with the Messiah, but it did not set him apart from other men. This is pre-existence in God’s thought, the ideal pre-existence of the Messiah.”

Reverend Maurice Wiles, Professor of Divinity at Oxford, wrote in The Remaking of Christian Doctrine:

Within the Christian tradition, the New Testament has long been read through the prism of the later conciliar creeds … Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God had a very different connotation in the first century from that which it has had ever since the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Talk of his pre-existence ought probably in most, perhaps in all cases, to be understood on the analogy of the pre-existence of the Torah, to indicate the eternal divine purpose being achieved through him, rather than pre-existence of a fully personal kind.

Now when the thing which God predestined, and promised through his prophets, finally became a reality in the real world, it could be said, figuratively, that that thing has come down from heaven. This would certainly apply in the case of the Messiah, who was “foreknown before the creation of the world, but made manifest in these last times” {1 Pet. 1:20}.

Assumption 2

Most orthodox Christians who understand Jesus’ language about coming down from heaven to be literal, then conclude that this is proof of his full divinity. But the conclusion does not necessarily follow the premise. If it could be proven beyond any doubt that Jesus meant his words literally this still would not get us to the full divinity of Jesus. At best it could prove that Jesus pre-existed in heaven in some form before coming down to earth. Jesus’ statement, “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but to do the will of him who sent me,” could be said by any celestial messenger, a.k.a. angel, and therefore does not provide proof of his deity. Ancient Arians, gnostics, JWs, Mormons and others believe that Jesus pre-existed in heaven in some form before coming to earth but that he was not God in the fullest sense. This assumption is clearly false.

Assumption 3

This assumption involves understanding the response of those who heard Jesus speak to indicate that they took his words literally. The hearers of Jesus’ teaching in John 6 consists of three categories: the twelve apostles {v. 67}, a group of the disciples from the larger group of followers of Jesus {vv. 24-25, 60-66}, and ‘the Jews’ {vv. 41-42, 52}, which were a group of Pharisees, priests and/or teachers of the law sent by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to observe and question Jesus. The only direct response we are given to Jesus’ statement about coming down from heaven is in vv. 41-42, and this by the Jews, not those of the other two groups:

“At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They said, ‘Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he then say, ‘I came down from heaven.’ “

Now does this necessarily mean that they understood Jesus to be speaking literally? These Jews, who were certainly hostile toward Jesus, would often, I believe, purposely distort Jesus’ words in an attempt to make him look foolish. They would take Jesus’ statements which were clearly meant figuratively, and pretend like he had meant them literally, thus hoping to make him appear ridiculous to the people. Other examples of this behavior of the Jews can be discerned in 2:20; 8:57; 10:33. It is reasonable to suppose that they understood Jesus to be speaking figuratively but feigned understanding him to be speaking literally. These Jews were not uneducated fools, they knew figurative language when they heard it. Rabbis often taught their disciples using parables, metaphors and figures of speech.

But even if we were forced to read the text as saying that the Jews understood Jesus literally, this still would not mean that he was speaking literally, only that they understood him to be so.

Later, in v. 52, the Jews again likely understand that Jesus is using figures of speech, but want to minimize what he is saying about eating his flesh. They do this by making out that he means it literally. I think it is likely that they understood Jesus to be claiming to be the Messiah, but not understanding all that this Messiah would accomplish in God’s plan, they probably didn’t grasp how eternal life would be dependent upon this man.

In v. 60 some disciples of Jesus say, “This is a difficult word, who can accept it.” I will deal with this later in the article, as I do not see this as a comment on Jesus’ statement about coming down from heaven, but rather about something else Jesus said.

Assumption 4

The final assumption made by the apologists is that the twelve apostles understood Jesus literally about coming down from heaven and so believed that he was God incarnate. The only thing in the text that reports the apostles response is in vv. 67-69, where Jesus asks them:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life. We believe and know that you are the holy one of God..”

We note that nothing is said specifically about Jesus having come down from heaven here, nor is anything said which demands we should think the apostles believed Jesus to be deity. The fact that they called him ‘Lord’ simply reflects that he was their rabbi and teacher {see 1:38, 49; 4:31; 9:2; 11:8, 28; 13:13-14}. (For further analysis on why Jesus was addressed as ‘lord’ by his disciples see this article here.) That they believed he had the words that lead one to everlasting life is simply to say that they believed God had sent him to speak the message which God gave him to speak, and this is what Jesus always confessed to do {see 5:24; 7:16-18; 12:49-50; 14:10, 24}. What about the fact that they believed him to be ‘the holy one of God‘? It should be observed that they did not say, “We believe that you are God, the holy one” or “you are God come in the flesh” or any such thing. They confessed him to be the holy one of God, which certainly implies they did not regard him as God himself. To be the ‘holy one of God‘ simply denotes that one is set apart by God for a special commission, as can be seen in Ps. 106:16 where the text calls Aaron “the holy one of Yahweh.” It is certainly fitting that the ideal son of David, Yahweh’s anointed one, should be so designated.

So we can conclude that the assumption that the apostles understood and believed Jesus to be saying that he was God come in the flesh is without merit.

Further Evidence That Jesus Came From Heaven?

The apologists believe that they find further support for taking Jesus’ statement, that he came down from heaven, literally, in vv. 60-62:

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a difficult word, who can accept it? Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the son of man ascend to where he was before! “

John 6:60-62

The assumptions of the apologists are these – 1.) that what Jesus said in this message was too hard for the disciples to understand 2.) that Jesus refers to his later ascension into heaven 3.) that heaven is where he was before i.e. that Jesus was originally in heaven and then came down to earth. But why do they assume these things from this text? I assert that it is because they presuppose the pre-existence of Jesus based on tradition. But if one approaches this text without that presupposition is he then not able to make any sense out of the words? There is a tendency in all Bible expositors to see ones theological predilections in the text of scripture and to not think beyond that. Not holding to the traditional idea of Jesus being God incarnate enables me to think deeper about the text to discover what Jesus’ words might mean within the original context, and having done so, here is what I see.

When these disciples complained that Jesus’ words were too hard or too difficult they were not saying that they did not understand what he was saying. His words were difficult for them to receive or accept precisely because they understood his meaning. Now what part of Jesus’ message are they specifically referring to? I don’t think they had in mind the statement that he is the bread that came down from heaven. They would have understood this figurative language to denote that he was claiming to be the promised Messiah. I also do not think that they were referring to Jesus’ statement about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, for they surely would have taken these words figuratively. What was difficult for them to accept was that he said he would give his flesh for the life of the world, which they rightly understood to mean that he would have to die. Remember, these are not the antagonistic Jews who would have been glad for him to die, but disciples who had come to think that Jesus might possibly be the long awaited son of David, who would free them from gentile rule and restore the kingdom to Israel. Just the day before they were so impressed by the miraculous sign that Jesus did that they intended to declare Jesus as the king, the rightful heir to David’s throne {see vv. 14-15, 22-25}. When we understand that the Jews of that day were awaiting a son of David whom God would raise up to take the throne of Israel and not a divine being who would die for their sins, then we can see the difficulty these disciples would have when the one they supposed could be this promised one is speaking about dying. We see this same incredulity among the crowds later when Jesus said that he would be lifted up. Knowing that he meant he would be crucified:

The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The son of man must be lifted up’ ?”

12:34

When Jesus first told the twelve that he must die, Peter actually rebuked him saying, “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!” {see Matt. 16:21-22}. For a Jew in the first century a crucified and dead Messiah did not fit their expectations {see Lk. 24:19-21}, which were based on what the prophets had foretold. That Jesus said he would die was a real stumblingblock for these disciples. Jesus asked them, “Does this cause you to stumble?” He was asking them if the fact that he would die is a cause for them to doubt that he is the Messiah, and in fact it was, for “from [that] time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” {v. 66}. The apostle Paul also noted that Jesus’ death on the cross was a cause of stumbling for the Jews {see 1 Cor. 1:23}. This is why the main aspect of the apostolic preaching was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

What Jesus said next to these doubting disciples must be taken in the context of the stumbling of these disciples at Jesus’ declaration that he would die. So Jesus said to them, “What if you should see the son of man ascend to where he was at first.” I used to think he was saying something like, “Hey if that causes you to stumble wait till you see me ascend into heaven,” but now I read it as, “Hey I understand that you are stumbling at the fact that I said I will die, but if you should see me rise up to where I was before would that make a difference .” I see it as a declaration of his resurrection not his ascension into heaven. This means “where he was before” is not heaven but among the living. The word translated ‘ascend’ is anabaino (Str. G305) which has a number of uses, both literal and figurative. It is used of Jesus ‘going up’ to Jerusalem in Matt. 20:17; of Jesus, at his baptism, ‘coming up’ out of the water in Matt. 3:16; of smoke ‘rising up’ in Rev. 8:4; of plants ‘springing up’ from the ground in Matt. 13:7; of thoughts ‘arising’ in the mind in Luke 24:38; and yes, it is used of Jesus’ ‘ascension’ into heaven in John 20:17. So while the word is used in John’s gospel of ascension into heaven, of it’s 16 occurrences 11 refer to some other meaning. Now one relevant fact to note is that the Hebrew equivalent of anabaino, which is alah (Str. H5927), is used three times of resurrection from the dead, in Ezek. 37:12-13 and Job 7:9. This may have been the exact word Jesus actually spoke, which was then translated by John into Greek with anabaino. So because the word is used of both ascension into heaven and coming up out of the grave, the way one interprets Jn. 6:62 will probably depend upon one’s presuppositions.

The next thing to consider is how this interpretation of v. 62 flows into vv. 63-64. Verse 63 is very ambiguous and so not readily interpreted, as a perusal of popular commentaries shows. The best way for me to present my interpretation is to offer a sort of expanded translation of the passage; so here it is.

60. Therefore, many of his disciple having heard (what Jesus had said about dying) said, “This is a difficult word, who (of us) is able to accept it?” 61. But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Does this (fact that I must die) present an obstacle to you (believing that I am the Messiah)? 62. What if you should (be privileged to) see the son of man (having died) come up (again among the living) where he was at first. 63.The spirit is that which gives life (to the dead); the flesh (i.e. your descent from Abraham in and of itself) benefits nothing. The words that I have spoken to you (if believed and appropriated) is what will result in (your possession of the) spirit and then life (in immortality). 64.Yet there are some of you who do not believe (that I am the Messiah).”

So from this perspective, Jesus, in vv. 61-64, is seeking to dissuade these doubting disciples from their unbelief. If they turn from him they have no hope of receiving the spirit {see Jn. 7:38-39} and the resulting immortality {see Rom. 8:11}. This is confirmed by what happened next, after many of the disciples walk away:

Jesus asked the twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words that lead to eternal life. We believe and know that you are the holy one of God.”

Jn. 6:67-69

Peter, speaking for the twelve, shows that they understood that Jesus was the promised one, the Messiah, and even if they could not fully understand what this talk of him dying entailed or how it fit into God’s plan, they knew that his word, which was really God’s word, must be believed.

An Alternative

An alternative interpretation of v. 63 is that Jesus speaks of his transformation into immortality, through death, as a necessary prerequisite to reigning in glory. “The flesh [which] profits nothing” would be speaking of his becoming king without first dying and then being raised in immortality. This would be of no profit for he would eventually die and so leave the kingdom once again open to attack by hostile Gentile powers. It is therefore indispensable that he first die and be raised to newness of life, that his reign may be without end. Thus “spirit and life” refer to the new existence of Jesus post resurrection {see Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 5:16-17}.

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

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