Why do some people turn back from following Jesus?
We’ve all seen it happen. Some people get “turned on” to Jesus. They they get “turned off.” And finally, they “turn away.” The same thing happened when Jesus was on earth, and right after he had performed one of his greatest miraculous signs, the feeding of 5,000 men with five loaves and two fish. We read these words in John 6:66-71,
> After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” 70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him (John 6:66-71 ESV).
We never expect this chapter to end this way. This chapter tells the story of one of the best known miracles of Jesus: the feeding of the 5,000. In fact, this is the only miracle told in all four of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
John tells us in chapter 6 verse 2, that “huge crowd kept following him wherever he went, because they saw his miraculous signs as he healed the sick” (Joh 6:2 NLT). In the next verses, he takes five loaves and two fish. He blesses them. He multiplies them. And he feeds 5,000 men plus women and children. The people ate until they were full and there were still 12 baskets of food left over. Jesus started with five loaves and two fish. More than five thousand ate to their heart’s content. And there was enough food left over to fill 12 baskets.
When the people saw what had happened, they said, “Surely he is the Prophet we have been expecting” (John 6:14).
The next day, the people came looking for Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. But by the end of the day, many of these disciples turned their back on Jesus. They returned to their old way of living. They would no longer follow the Teacher. They would not listen to his teaching any more. They didn’t want to see any more of his miracles. Even among his 12 chosen disciples, decisions were being made for and against Jesus.
What had gone wrong? Everything had started so well. Why had so many people changed their mind about Jesus?
You and I both know people who have begun to follow Christ, but at some point, for some reason, they turned away from him. They stopped following him. They stopped reading his Word. They stopped living as followers of Christ. They stopped trusting in him.
Why do some people turn back from following Jesus?
This story reveals several reasons why people stop following Jesus.
1. First, some people stop following Christ because they cannot control him.
1.1. Their desire to make him king.
John 6:14 tells us,
14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” 15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself (John 6:2-15 ESV).
The people had seen the sign. That had done more than see the sign, they had all eaten their fill of bread and fish. Fifteen centuries before Christ, Moses had led the Israelites through the wilderness. Every day they had eaten a miraculous provision. In fact, Moses had promised that another prophet like him would come. We read in Deuteronomy 18:15,
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him (Deuteronomy 18:15 NLT).
Seeing the miracle, the people exclaimed, “This is him! This is the prophet that Moses talked about!”
Indeed he was. Jesus was the prophet that Moses had predicted. Three verses later, in Deuteronomy 18:18-19, God says to Moses,
I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. 19 I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf (Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NLT).
Both the Apostle Peter and Stephen confirmed that Jesus is indeed the prophet that Moses had predicted (Acts 3:22-23; 7:37).
The people ate the bread, remembered the manna and Moses’ prophecy, and rightly concluded that Jesus was the Prophet to come. He was the Prophet and more than a Prophet, for Jesus was the very Word of God. He was God in the flesh.
1.2. Their concept of what a king would do
Jesus saw that they were ready to come by force and make him king. “What a great idea!” they thought. “We’ll make him king! With Jesus our as king, we’ll overthrow the Romans. Jesus will multiply our provisions. He’ll multiply the food. He’ll multiply our weapons. He’ll heal our wounded. There’s no way we could lose!”
What a marvelous idea. Even the 12 disciples were in favor, but as far as Jesus was concerned, they had completely misunderstood his intentions and his mission. Jesus saw what they were up to and he would have no part of it. He had to avoid the complications that would come from a coalition between his own disciples and the crowd that wanted to make him king. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus immediately “made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds” (Mat 14:22 ESV) while Jesus went up on the mountain to pray.
1.3. The hope of the disciples
Jesus is on the mountain praying. The disciples are in the boat. They are crossing the Sea of Galilee when they find themselves in the middle of a storm. “It was now dark… 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.”
As the disciples rowed, they found themselves in the middle of a storm, but literally and figuratively. They were no doubt confused as to why Jesus would not accept to become their king. Perhaps they wondered whether he had kingly power and authority. Mark tells us that they had not understood the meaning of the multiplication of the loaves for their hearts were too hard to take it in (Mark 6:52).
19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw” something — Someone — walking toward them on the water in the midst of the storm (Joh 6:17-19 ESV). They were more terrified by what they saw than by the storm, and cried out, “It’s a ghost!” (Matthew 14:26).
The disciples were scared out of their wits and could not row fast enough to get away from the fast approaching Figure.
A King unlike any other king.
Then, in the midst of the storm, they heard that reassuring voice they knew so well, “It is I. Don’t be afraid!”
Jesus had understood their disappointment. He had understood their confusion as to why he would not accept to be another earthly king. So as they were rowing their boat in the midst of a terrible storm, Jesus gave them a living demonstration of his royalty and his sovereignty over the realm of nature. He was saying in effect, “I will not become king for your love of bread. But make no mistake about it. I am The King of every realm. I am the King of nature. Contrary and violent winds cannot hinder me. The troubled sea cannot cover me. I am the King!”
Jesus had refused to accept their definition of kingship. He had refused to be the kind of king that they wanted. Jesus is not the kind of king that you can control. Some people refuse to follow him because they want a king that does whatever they want him to do. In reality, they don’t want a king at all. They want to be the king of their own lives.
But John shows us a second reason why people turn away from Jesus.
2. People stop following Christ because his mission is not compatible with what they are looking for.
2.1. They were looking for temporary satisfaction (6:22-29)
The next day the crowd that had stayed on the far shore saw that the disciples had taken the only boat, and they realized Jesus had not gone with them. 23 Several boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the Lord had blessed the bread and the people had eaten. 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went across to Capernaum to look for him (John 6:22-24 NLT).
So the crowd has gotten into boats to cross the Sea of Galilee in search of Jesus. When they find him, they are trying to figure out how he got there. The night before, the disciples had taken the last boat. The disciples had left Jesus on the mountain. No more boats came until that morning, and yet Jesus was already with the disciples. The crowd does not know that Jesus walked on the water. They want to know how he got to the other side of the Sea of Galilee without them knowing it.
“Rabbi, when did you get here?” they ask. Instead of telling them when he came, Jesus tells them why they came.They came because they were hungry. The loved the fast-food idea. The fish sandwiches that Jesus had so quickly prepared were delicious. They wanted more to eat.
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill (John 6:26 NIVO).
That was the depth of their understanding. They had totally missed the meaning of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish. They had failed to understand that Jesus himself is the source of life. So Jesus will correct their understanding through his teaching.
Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:27 NIVO).
They replied, “We want to perform God’s works, too. What should we do?” 29 Jesus told them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29 NLT).
They preferred manna over the Bread of Life (6:30-33)
But the crowd throws a question in his face:
They answered, “Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do? (John 6:30 NLT).
“Show us a sign,” they say. Seeing is believing, as we often hear today. But it is not true. Seeing is seeing. Believing is being sure without seeing. “Show us a sign… What can you do?”
We are astonished at their question. They are demanding another sign. What do they want? Just the day before, Jesus had multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed thousands. These very people had seen him do it and had eaten their fill. How could they ask for another sign?
The next verse shows us that they are comparing Jesus with Moses.
Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” (John 6:31 NIVO).
They don’t think that Jesus compares that well with Moses.
Jesus gave them barley loaves; Moses gave their forefathers manna.
Jesus only fed 5,000 men plus women and children; Moses fed the entire nation.
Jesus only gave them one meal; Moses fed the nation for 40 years.
Jesus does not accept the comparison. He rejects their claims. It was not Moses that gave them manna.
Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:32-33 NIVO).
Jesus tells them that the bread of God is not manna, but the One who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
2.2. Jesus Is the True Bread of Life: I AM… (6:34-40)
The crowd responds with sarcasm: “Sir, gives us that bread!” Just like the Samaritan woman who had said to Jesus, “Oh, give me that water so I don’t have to bother coming here every day” (John 4:15).
Jesus’ response is full of energy:
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35 NLT).
John had mentioned Moses in the opening verses of this Gospel. The crowd had spoken of Moses and had compared Jesus with him. Jesus now makes reference to the call of Moses. Moses was 80 years old when he stood before the burning bush. Standing on holy ground, he asked the name of the God who was sending him to Pharaoh. “I AM!” God said. “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). “Yahweh” — “I am.” “I am the one who is.” “I am the one whose existence depends on no one else.” “I AM.”
Centuries passed. The manna in the wilderness had met a physical need, but the deepest need of their life had not been met.
“I AM the Bread of Life,” Jesus said. With this declaration, Jesus identified himself with the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14.
In John 8:58, Jesus claims to have existed eternally when he says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The Jews understood his claim to be God for they picked up stones to stone him.
In John 9:5, Jesus declared, “I AM the light of the world” just before opening the eyes of a man born blind.
King David had said, “The LORD is my shepherd” (Psalm 23), but Jesus announced in effect, “That’s me. I AM the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).
Standing before the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus said, “I AM the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
For those who want to know the way to God, Jesus proclaimed, “I AM the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6).
Jesus is the source of life. He is the Bread of Life.
Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty… 38 For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me…40 For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:35, 38, 40 NLT).
Jesus’ Mission Is Not Compatible with What the Crowd Is Looking for.
There is still a conflict between Jesus and the crowd. Why? Because what they are looking for and what Jesus came to give are not compatible. What is the crowd looking for? The crowd is looking for life. Well, what did Jesus come to give? He came to give life.
If the crowd is looking for life and Jesus came to give life, where is the problem? The problem is in the interpretation of life. For the crowd and for so many people today, life simply means been fed and satisfied physically. Jesus came to give us more than that. He came to give us eternal life. He came to give us himself.
Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you…” (John 6:27 NIVO).
3. People stop following Christ because they have misunderstood who he is.
Then the people began to murmur in disagreement because he had said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph? We know his father and mother. How can he say, ‘I came down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42 NLT).
It is a case of mistaken identity. They think that they know all about him. Jesus does not try to correct their lack of understanding about his person. Instead he simply explains that they cannot come to him unless the Father draws them.
For no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them to me, and at the last day I will raise them up. 45 …Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46 (Not that anyone has ever seen the Father; only I, who was sent from God, have seen him.) 47 “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes has eternal life (John 6:44-47 NLT).
Many fail to come to Christ because they think he was simply a great teacher, one among many. Jesus Christ is so much more. As John tells us in 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (ESV).
4. Finally, people stop following Christ because they don’t want to accept his sacrifice.
4.1. No Life Without Death
Jesus adds a new element in the discussion. There can be no life without his death.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” 52 Then the people began arguing with each other about what he meant. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked. 53 So Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life within you (John 6:51-53 NLT).
Someone asked a friend of mine who was a missionary in Africa, “Can a Christian practice cannibalism?” The question may be rather shocking since cannibalism involves the killing of another person who was also created in the image of God. But from another perspective, we might ask whether a person can be a Christian without practicing cannibalism. If that question shocks you, it also shocked the Jews. But the language of eating and drinking was often used to speak of the accepting and taking in of someone’s teaching. The Jews found it difficult to accept Jesus’ teaching, but Jesus said that there was no life a part from his teaching: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you cannot have eternal life in you” (6:53).
Yet, Jesus was saying something even more profound. He was making reference to the separation of his blood from his body. He was not making reference to Holy Communion which is a symbol of his death; he was making reference to the death itself, not the symbol. His death on the cross. It is only through the appropriation of his death that we have eternal life.
4.2. Hard hearts
Many of the crowd was offended by his teaching. They said that it was a “hard saying” (6:60). Augustine says that it was not the teaching that was hard, but the hearts.
Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?” 61 Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining, so he said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what will you think if you see the Son of Man ascend to heaven again? 63 The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But some of you do not believe me” (For Jesus knew from the beginning which ones didn’t believe, and he knew who would betray him.) 65 Then he said, “That is why I said that people can’t come to me unless the Father gives them to me.” 66 At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him (John 6:60-66 NLT).
They left, never again to follow Jesus. No more would they hear his teaching. No longer would they see his miraculous signs. They had had enough.
4.3. What went wrong? Why did they abandon Jesus?
Simply put, Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that they were looking for. They wanted a materialistic Messiah. But Jesus had said that his very words were spirit and life.
We cannot say that anything went wrong. Very often in the Gospels, Jesus sifts people. He separates people who are committed to him from those people who have their own agenda to follow. For example in Luke 14:26-27, Jesus says to a large crowd,
”If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison– your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters– yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. 27 And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26-27 NLT).
Jesus preferred a small group of committed disciples who were established in the faith and who denied themselves for his sake. When the rich young ruler was saddened by Jesus’ requirements, Jesus did not go chasing after him to change the terms. Jesus was saddened because he loved the young man, but the man loved his riches more than he loved Jesus.
When the crowd deserted Jesus, he made no attempt to hold them or to explain what they might not have understood. No. Jesus could not build his church out of people who had their own agendas. People who were only out for what they could get now. If we try to fill our buildings by changing the demands of the Gospel, we might find there is not enough room in the building, but what we will have will not be the Church of Jesus Christ.
Jesus used terms to attract true believers and to repel those who wanted a materialistic Messiah.
4.4. What about the Twelve?
Far from being discouraged by the results, Jesus turns to his 12 disciples and applies the question to them:
So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” (John 6:67 ESV).
Jesus is not pouting. This question was full of manly energy. He expects them to say, “No.” But at the same time, he wants the Twelve to know that the doors is always open for them to leave. It does not want to push them out the door, but he gives them permission to leave. The rest of the conversation reveals what he was thinking.
Peter returns the serve, so to speak. Without consulting the others, he presumes to speak for them:
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? (John 6:68 ESV).
This question reveals the emptiness of any other teaching.
“You have the words of eternal life, (John 6:68 ESV).
With this declaration, Peter shows that he has seen the immeasurable richness of Jesus’ teaching. He echoes the words of Christ in verse 63,
…The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (John 6:63 ESV).
And yet, this is not merely an imitation of what Jesus has said. Peter has experience Christ personally:
and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69 ESV).
Peter had spoken for all the disciples. Was he right? Jesus does not rebuke Peter, but he does life the veil of hypocrisy from one of his disciples. Jesus shows to Judas and to the others that he knows the score. He knows who’s who. He knows who is true and who is false.
Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him (John 6:70-71 ESV).
Jesus had chosen Judas out of love. And for that love, Judas would betray his Master. Judas is the archetype of those who had turned their backs on Jesus. He held the moneybag for the disciples. He was looking for a financial profit. He had hoped for a materialistic Messiah. And when he understood that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that he was looking for, he decided that he would cash in his chips. The time that he had invested would not be a total loss. He would sell his Master for 30 pieces of silver. The disciples who had withdrawn and who would no longer follow Jesus were more honorable and more honest than Judas.
It is not surprising that several of a multitude of disciples would decide to quit following Jesus. But we are surprised that one of the Twelve disciples would betray his Lord. Judas was there when Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish. He was in the boat when Jesus came walking across the water. He had been given authority to heal the sick and to cast out devils. Yet, he walked away from it all.
Unfortunately his apostasy is not rare. How many people do you know who started their walk with Jesus, but who walk their own way now?
Perhaps you have been wrestling with what you are going to do with Jesus. Let’s get it straight: You can’t control him; he is the King. He is the King whose throne would be a cross and whose crown would be made of thorns. He is the King who came to die that you might have life. Where will you go? He alone has the words of eternal life. Have you not yet figured out who he is? This is what was revealed to Peter:
“We have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Joh 6:68-69 ESV).
Who will you turn to? Jesus alone has the words of eternal life.
p class=”p1″>See also “Gospel of John”:
- John 01:01-05, 14-18, “God in the Flesh”
- John 01:06-08, 19-34, “The Witness”
- John 01:35-51, “Finding the Messiah”
- John 02:01-11, “Believing”
- John 02:13-25, “Christ Cleanses the Temple”
- John 02:23-03:15, “You Must Be Born Again”
- John 03:01-15 “The Purpose of the New Birth”
- John 04:19-24, “The Seeking God”
- John 05:01-18, “Jesus: Who Does He Think He Is?”
- John 05:19-29, “Jesus, What right do you have?”
- John 05:30-46, “Jesus’ Witnesses”
- John 06:01-71, “No Appetite for the Bread of Life”
- John 07:01-39, “History’s Most Controversial Person”
- John 08:02-11, “Guilt – What to Do with It”
- John 08:12-30, “Jesus, the Light of the World”
- John 08:31-36, “Life’s Greatest Freedom!”
- John 08:31-47, “Children of God, or Sons of Satan?”
- John 08:48-59, “Who Does Jesus Make Himself Out To Be?”
- John 09:01-41, “Blind Man Seeing, Seeing Men Blind”
- John 10:01-06, “The Good Shepherd, Part 1”
- John 10:07-21, “The Good Shepherd, Part 2”
- John 10:22-30, “Missing the Obvious: Jesus is the Christ”
- John 10:30-42, “Jesus, the Most Controversial Person in History”
- John 11:01-45, “When God Is Late”
- John 12:01-19, “The Triumphal Entry in the Shadow of the Cross”