The hard sayings of Jesus

(John 6.60)  (click the arrow to listen)

Understanding Jesus requires us to dig honestly into the bible. Without doing this we can end up with imagined or even sentimental ideas about who Jesus was, his character and his mission. As an example, I once came across someone who summarised the mission of Jesus as: “Jesus came to tell us to be nice to one another”! Let’s begin with a passage which illustrates our subject: 

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ … From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:60-66)

There was an attrition rate among those who followed Jesus. Even among The Twelve Judas eventually turned away and found it too much. It is interesting that during his ministry Jesus ministered to thousands, yet on the Day of Pentecost there were only 120 faithful followers gathered to receive the Holy Spirit.

The hard sayings were offensive to many, but necessary to test the commitment of their faith in Jesus. If following Jesus was easy, as one hymn writer ironically put it, ‘Must we be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease?’, then people would follow Jesus for the wrong reasons. The hard sayings are particularly challenging parts of his ministry which stretch the love of his followers for him.

The hard sayings also reflect the fact of the spiritual warfare in which Jesus was engaged and to which he calls us. We are enlisted as soldiers to fight the good fight of faith. Soldiers require hard training in order to be able to meet any difficult situations which arise. The hard sayings are part of this training as we get to grips with the implications of this wisdom in them.

It is tempting to tackle the hardest first, but I shall attempt to deal with them chronologically as they occurred over the period of his three-year ministry. Obviously, no Gospel claims to be a fully historical sequence of events so there is some flexibility in this. It may be that looking at them in this way will throw up something interesting in the way his hard sayings developed as his ministry reached its climax.

We begin with the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus laid down some significant markers as to what his teaching encompassed. The outline of his message was as follows: 

‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 4:17) 

His audience were believing Jews. They assumed that being a Jew and having the Law of Moses was sufficient for them. Jesus blew this idea apart; some of his hard sayings were particularly explosive!

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