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Aug 24, 2018

“The Life of the World” 8-19-18

John 6:45-59
13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 19, 2018

Reading Scripture can become a bit like travelling a familiar road—depending, of course, on how often we actually read.  It’s easy to drift into a kind of auto-pilot mode such that while we’re aware of the road, our minds can actually be elsewhere, working on other things.  Occasionally, though, something grabs our attention.  It’s been there along the road all along, but for some reason we really notice for the first time.  It adds a whole new dimension to the familiar journey and we wonder how we missed it for so long.

Something like that happened to me working through John 6 for this series of messages.  The phrase “the life of the world” in 6:51 caught my eye as unusual.  Now, John’s Gospel is replete with references to “life” and to “the world,” so in a sense the phrase “the life of the world” hides in plain sight.  But the phrase is unique.  I cannot find another instance anywhere else in Scripture.  Of course, the Bible is a big book and I may have missed an instance somewhere. But, in any case, it is a singularly uncommon expression.  Moreover, it is not just a case of “Bible trivia.”  Hear again the phrase in its context: “I am the living bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat of it and not die.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and that bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  What I hope to show this morning is that the expression “the life of the world” is rich in significance for our understanding of the saving work of Christ.

Before I turn to that, however, I would like to draw your attention to a few important considerations in the flow of John 6.  We have been working through this chapter for four Sundays now and I would be remiss not to point out how some of the key themes are being developed.

In the first place, we can note that vs 45b reiterates the priority of the Father’s work in bringing people to faith.  People come to Jesus because they are drawn by the Father.  Thus, in vs 45b Jesus says, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”  There is no ambiguity here.  There is a hearing and learning from the Father that infallibly brings people to Jesus.  No one who hears and learns in this way walks away from Jesus.  This, of course, is an elaboration of Jesus’ earlier claim in vs 37 that “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me...”  Jesus is speaking in a setting in which most of the crowd will walk away from him.  But, he makes it clear that there are those who will not fail to come to him.  The Father gives this to Jesus and the Father brings it about.

Second, it is worth observing that here John presents what has elsewhere been referred to as the “cosmic” Christ.   This refers to the exalted status of Christ after his resurrection and ascension as opposed to his humble existence as the man from Galilee.  St. Paul in Ephesians 1:20-21 says that God seated Christ "at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church...” This is the “cosmic” Christ.  John does not use this kind of language, but he makes the same point in the way he contrasts expressions that refer to the whole creation—the “cosmos”, if you will—with expressions that expressly refer to people.  Thus, for example, in vs 37, “everything” refers to the whole creation as coming to Jesus in some way, while in vs 45b “everyone who has heard and been taught by the Father” refers specifically to people.  All of this falls in line with the distinction made in the prologue in 1:11. “He came to what was his own (literally, his own things), and his own people did not accept him.”  In the writings of Paul, the Christ enters into his “cosmic” glory after the resurrection and ascension.  In John, the Lord of Glory leaves it behind to pitch his tent with us, but prays to see it again in his intercession in John 17.  This is in keeping with John’s emphasis on the pre-existence of Christ.

As we look at the unfolding of chapter 6 it is also striking to note the increasing vexation of Jesus’ listeners as he presses his unique claim to be the bread of life.  We noted in an earlier message that in vs 41 the Jews complained, or murmured, when Jesus said that he was “the bread that came down from heaven.”  This complaining was evocative of the complaining of Israel in the wilderness as they journeyed toward the Promised Land.  First Israel complained that they had no food.  Then they complained that all they had to eat every day was Manna.  Now, in the Gospel, the people are offered the true bread from heaven and, like their forefathers, complain about this provision.  In verse 52, however, the vexation increases.  Jesus told them that the bread that he gives for the life of the world is his flesh.  Their response is no longer murmuring but fighting.  The NRSV “disputed” is a good translation, but it does not capture the combative nuance of the word here.  Jesus’ claim profoundly offends their sensibilities and pushes them to the edge of anger.

What follows is meant to remove any doubt about Jesus’ intent in referring to his flesh as the bread of life.   In vs. 52-58, in all of the references to “eating” Jesus’ flesh, John uses the Greek verb trogo, which is a very graphic verb.  It is commonly used in Greek, for example, of dogs gnawing on bones.  In the one place in the NT where it is used outside of John’s Gospel, Matthew 24:38, it refers to the people in the days of Noah who were “eating and drinking.”  This is not an “eating” that can be spiritualized or idealized.  It is an “eating” of real “flesh.”

John 6 and the discourse on the Bread of Life is the one place in John’s gospel that elaborates the staggering announcement of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”  John writes against the background of a heresy that would become known as Docetism.  Docetism taught that Christ only appeared to be human and that there was no real incarnation of the Son of God.  Advocates of Docetism, for example, insisted that the Lord’s Supper pointed only to “spiritual” realities and emptied it of all connection to the humanity of Christ.  Consequently, John relates the Bread of Life discourse in a way that closes the door on all such attempts to remove the incarnation from the center of the Gospel.  Jesus had to become fully one of us to save us.  The sacrifice of his perfect humanity, or his sacrifice as a fully human person, is for the life of the world.

Let’s turn our attention, then, to this expression, the life of the world.

There are many similar phrases in John’s Gospel.  For example, John the Baptist announced Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (1:29) The Samaritans from the town of the woman at Jacob’s Well confessed that Jesus is the savior of the world. (4:42) Jesus claimed to be the light of the world. (8:12   When Greeks came asking to see Jesus before his last Passover, Jesus announced the judgment of this world and the driving out of the ruler of this world. (12:31) So, the world has sin, it has a savior, it has a light, it has a judgment, it has a vanquished ruler.   And, it has a life. 
What exactly is “the world?”  Is this a word used with multiple significations or is there something basic and essential that unites all these nuances?  We can press the question further by reminding ourselves of the best known of the “world” verses in John’s Gospel, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  What is this “world” that God so loves?   We may be certain that it is the same “world” of which the flesh and blood of Jesus is the life.

Theologians have offered many interpretations of this, some more helpful than others.  The English Puritan pastor John Flavel (d. 1691) is typical of many in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition who simply identify the “world” as the “elect.”  Flavel writes, “…and the word [world] is put to signify the elect, because they are scattered through all parts, and are among all ranks of men in the world; these are the objects of this love…”  However, this seems to be a strained interpretation driven by theological concerns; if the “world” here is the “elect,” “the world” has to refer to something else when Jesus elsewhere speaks of the judgment of this world, or the ruler of this world, and possibly even the light of the world.

John Calvin (d. 1564), who of course had important things to say about the elect, says this of “the world” in John 3:16.  “The Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.”  Thus, for Calvin, the world refers to the human race.  I would not want to disagree with this, except to suggest that there is something more in view.

Two of the church Fathers also deserve to be heard in this connection.  John Chrysostom (d.407) wrote concerning John 3:16, “Large and infinite was the interval between the two.  He, the immortal, who is without beginning, the Infinite Majesty, they but dust and ashes, full of ten thousand sins, who, ungrateful, have at all times offended Him; and these He loved.”  Chrysostom is moved by the word order of the Greek original in which “God” stands in strong contrast right next to “the world.”  Chrysostom, like Calvin, identifies “the world” with humanity, but draws attention to our fallenness, magnifying the gracious condescension of the God who loves those who do not deserve his love.  St. Augustine (d.430), elaborates John 12:47, a text very similar to John 3:16-17 in this way: “For I am not come,” He says, “to judge the world, but to save the world;” that is, to bring the world into a state of salvation.  Augustine’s paraphrase, I believe, presses us to wrestle with the question, “What would that look like?”  Would it just mean getting everybody saved, or would it entail ramifications beyond just the state of human souls?”

In John 1:9-10 we are given the baseline for talking about “the world” in John’s Gospel.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 
Note that “the world” has two meanings that can be distinguished, but that John wants us to keep closely associated.  This creates the possibility of intentional “double meaning” which John is so fond of.  On the one hand, the world is the creation.  “The world came into being through him [ie., the Word].”  On the other hand, the world is humanity in rebellion against its Creator.  “The world did not know him.”  When John states that he [the Word] was in the world, it takes on a deliberate double meaning.  Christ is in the world he created—the physical world with all its beauty, the world of nature, the world that is subject to the laws of physics and so forth, the Creation of which humankind is the crown and steward.   But Christ is also in the world of fallen humanity—the world that does not know him, the world that lies in darkness, the world that is under judgment, the world that he will overcome.  All of it is Christ’s world.  The only part of the world that is in rebellion against the Creator is humanity, but their rebellion casts the shadow of darkness and death over everything.

Consequently, the meaning of “the world” is sometimes strongly nuanced in the direction of evil, while in other settings the original, good creation is in view.  After all, the New Testament word for world is kosmos.  In the context of New Testament Scripture, to speak of the kosmos as darkness, under the power of the Evil One, is always to remind the reader of the catastrophe of the fall, and by grace, what the world will be again.  The beauty and order of God’s kosmos has been horribly marred, no more devastatingly than in that which can most perfectly reflect the beauty and glory of the Creator—namely in God’s own image bearers.  But, the traces of original beauty and order cannot be stamped out of a fallen world.

This is the world God loves.  This is the world of which the flesh and blood of Jesus is the life.   Let me suggest that “the world” as the object of God’s redeeming love, with a life that can be sustained by the sacrifice of Christ, refers to humankind situated or located in the fabric of God’s creation.  “The world” refers to humanity, not abstractly as so many numbered “souls,” but as a race bound up in our existence in a creation designed for us and we for it.  “The world” is humanity as it lives a purposeful, God-ordered existence which takes shape in culture and civilization, to say the very least.  The world is “people” to be sure, but people considered in relation to the only real existence they have—namely an existence in the creation order established by God, now corrupted and subject to death and judgment.  The Good News is that there is life! for this dying world—the flesh and blood of Jesus.

This is the encouragement I hope we will take to heart from this wonderful phrase, “the life of the world.”  We live in a world where there has long been darkness.  There is so much in each day’s news to fill us with discouragement—to make us pessimistic about our future and the future of our grandchildren.  From a human standpoint, we know that the most remarkable human achievements have a potential dark side and that everything tends to unravel.  Sometimes we wonder if there’s really much point in getting up in the morning.  But, there is a future for the world, and we should engage the world each day with hope and confidence, knowing that the body and blood of Christ is the life of the world—not just the life of eternal souls, but of human life lived out in a creation designed by God, so that the creation may be brought to its intended fullness for the glory of God.  Thus, the incarnation means, among other things, means that “the world” will always be a central concern of the church.

Raymond Brown, a NT scholar and specialist in the writings of St. John wrote, "The Incarnation, then, means that the Church, which is the Body of Christ, is just as inextricably bound to this world as was its Master. Once the Word became flesh, a purely spiritual religion, or one with its vision too farsightedly fixed on next world, became impossible. No one can find Christ outside the world; nor can one find the real world outside Christ, because the Incarnation has changed the nature of the world.”

Here is the full paradox of our being in the world, but not of the world.  We are in the world as part of the creation—flesh and blood, even as our Lord would come to be for our sakes.   We participate in an order of creation, a fabric of existence that is now hostile to the Creator, steeped in the darkness of sin, and subject to corruption and death.  Indeed, we were once part of it, but Christ delivered us from its dominion and brought into his kingdom.  But, even as Christ came into this world of death to destroy death by his death and give life to the world, so we too are still in it—for the sake of the life of the world until Christ raises it up on the last day.   Amen.

Pastor Paul Copeland
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906