NOTE ADDED: HERE IS A PODCAST response to Dr. James White’s very short-sighted critique of this article on his Dividing Line program. And for those wanting to read a response against his repeated errors, it has already been written the last time he did the exact same thing to another scholar: CLICK HERE
I remember my hermeneutics professor saying at the beginning of every class:
“Text without context is a pretext for proof-text.”
Context tells us the history, the setting, the audience and thus helps understand the intention of the author. The grammar can inform us of what interpretations are allowed, but the author’s intent is best discovered in the overall context.
The sixth chapter of John is one of the top three most contested passages in all of scripture regarding the doctrine of salvation (along with Rom. 9 and Eph. 1). So, as students of scripture lets put our hermeneutical training to work and answer the major questions about the context of this hotly contested chapter:
1. What is the context? Who is the audience? What is going on at this time?
The audience is a bunch of unbelieving Israelites looking for free food (vs. 25-31) and the twelve apostles (vs. 70). What do we know about the Israelites of this day?
a. They have “become calloused…Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them” (Acts 28:27). They were not born calloused, but over time they had grown hardened in their religious self-righteousness which prevented them from hearing, seeing and responding to the revelation of God.
b. They are being ‘judicially hardened’ (or ‘cut off’ or ‘sent a spirit of stupor’) so as to seal them in their calloused condition. Why? To accomplish a greater redemptive purpose through their rebellion (crucifixion, ingrafting Gentiles into the church — Rom. 9-11).
c. Jesus is not attempting to “win them over” or have them come to faith in great numbers as we see in Acts 2 when Peter preaches. In fact, in support of God’s judicial hardening of Israel, we see Jesus actively instructing his apostles to not tell others who he is yet (Mt. 16:20). Jesus purposefully speaks in parables in order to prevent their coming to faith and repentance (Mark 4:11-13; Matt. 13:11-15). If anything, Jesus is actively provoking the Jews with very difficult teachings. In this chapter he tells them to eat his flesh and drink his blood without explanation (vs. 51-52). Clearly He is not attempting to persuade this audience to stick around. He is provoking them purposefully.
Is this contextual information relevant when attempting to understand the author’s intention with regard to the natural inability of mankind from birth? I certainly would think so given he is addressing a large group of people nicknamed “the elect of God” who are being actively blinded by God from seeing the truth.
Notice, the judicially hardened Jews are not the only ones present when Jesus is speaking in John 6. The twelve apostles are also in the audience and in fact they are the only ones who stick around after Jesus is done provoking the crowd with his “pro-cannibalistic” sounding sermon (vs. 66-67).
Why didn’t the twelve leave too? It is almost as if they were “drawn to him” through persuasive teachings and miraculous signs. Remember, unlike the other Israelites in the audience, they had watched Jesus walk on water, control the weather, heal the blind, feed the masses and had personally explained to them the meaning of the mysteries that the world had not yet been given (Eph. 3: 1-13). [Note: nothing is mentioned in the text of God using an inward, irresistible calling or work of regeneration to convince his apostles. Thomas is shown the scars in order to be persuaded. Jesus clearly indicates his signs are meant to help their unbelief.]
Those Jesus are entrusting with the truth from Israel are only a select few* at this time (while He is on earth). The rest are being hardened in their already calloused self-righteous stubborn condition…NOT a condition from birth due to the Fall (as Calvinists impose onto this text), but a condition of their own doing. A condition God is using to accomplish a greater redemptive good for all.
[*Note: In the context of John 6 only the twelve are mentioned, so that is who I focused upon, but clearly there are others close to the apostles who did believe in Christ. But, apostolic authority is only entrusted to a few from among the believing Israelites. In general, the Israelites are being “given over” or “blinded” in their already calloused self righteous stubbornness.]
With that historical context in mind let us look at the text:
35 “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty. 36 Now, I told you that you have seen me but will not believe. 37 Everyone whom my Father gives me will come to me. I will never turn away anyone who comes to me, 38 because I have come down from heaven to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And it is the will of him who sent me that I should not lose any of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them all to life on the last day. 40 For what my Father wants is that all who see the Son and believe in him should have eternal life. And I will raise them to life on the last day.”
41 The people started grumbling about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 So they said, “This man is Jesus son of Joseph, isn’t he? We know his father and mother. How, then, does he now say he came down from heaven?”
43 Jesus answered, “Stop grumbling among yourselves. 44 People cannot come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me; and I will raise them to life on the last day. (John 6:35-43)
Calvinistic believers often emphasize verse 37 as it relates to verse 39 to prove that the author intends to teach Calvinistic doctrine (i.e. that God has preselected a particular number of people to irresistibly draw to faith while leaving all others without the ability to respond to the revelation of God). However, I’d like to draw our attention to the CONTEXT clue given in verse 38.
Everyone whom my Father gives me will come to me. I will never turn away anyone who comes to me, 38 because I have come down from heaven to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And it is the will of him who sent me that I should not lose any of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them all to life on the last day. (John 6:37-39, emphasis added)
Jesus is clearly speaking contextually of what is happening while he is “down from heaven.” While on earth God has clearly sent Christ to accomplish a specific part of His redemptive will. Is that will to be a great evangelist, like Peter in Acts 2, and win thousands to faith? Clearly not. God’s will is for Jesus to come “down from heaven” and train a group of pre-selected Israelites (those given to Him to be apostles) to carry the gospel to the rest of the world and establish His Church after He is raised up (John 12:32; Mt. 28:19).
Calvinists are taking something Jesus is addressing in his actual first century context and applying it to their holistic systematic view of salvation for all God’s elect throughout all of time. This is an example of proof texting.
What Calvinists unintentionally fail to see is that Jesus, while here on earth in the flesh, is actively and judicially blinding Israel by means of parables, a spirit of stupor, and provoking language, while only drawing to himself (while on earth) a remnant of preselected Israelite messengers (to carry out the purpose for which Israel was elected from the beginning: to bring the light to the rest of the world – Gen. 12:3; Rom. 3:2).
In other words, Jesus’ audience in John 6 is made up of his preselected apostles from Israel and the already calloused Israelites who are being judicially blinded by God from seeing the truth (John 12:39-41; Acts 28:27-27; Mark 4; Matt. 13; Romans 11).
The reason his audience walks away is not because God rejected them from before the foundation of the earth, as Calvinism presumes. By no means! God has consistently expressed his desire for the repentance and faith of the Israelite people (Mt. 23:37; Rom. 10:31; Ezk 18:30-31; 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4, etc). They are walking away because God has sealed them over in their already rebellious condition for a time in order to accomplish His redemptive plan, as was prophesied (Acts 2:23). Israel is not rejecting God because God rejected them! Quite the opposite. God is temporarily hardening those in their rebellious, calloused condition in order to accomplish redemption for all, including them (Rm. 11:32).
So, what is the intent of John 6? Is it as the Calvinist teaches — that God has condemned all men over to a totally disabled condition from birth due to the sin of Adam and only irresistibly draws out a pre-selected number of people for salvation leaving the rest without any hope of response to His own appeals for reconciliation?
OR…Is the intent of John 6 to tell us the narrative of Jesus’ provoking Israel in their hardened unbelief while drawing out for himself a remnant of divinely appoint messengers to take the gospel into all the world, drawing all to himself, after he is raised up?
When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me. – John 12:32
Also, for more study on God’s calling out of his apostles, and anticipated objections to this interpretation: PLEASE READ: “Have you been given to Christ by the Father?
For more clarity on the doctrine of divine election, especially as it relates to the distinction between God’s appointment of servants to carry his message and his choice of those who believe that message: PLEASE CLICK HERE.