60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’
66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. 67So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ 68Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’* 70Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ 71He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot,* for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.
Even some of those who were followers, disciples, of Jesus did not grasp what he was saying. Still thinking literally, they were offended at the idea of eating his body (wouldn’t we be?). Jesus challenges them, but also clarifies – “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words I have spoken to you are the words of eternal life.” He is speaking of the life in the Spirit – the spiritual life – of the giving of his life for ours – of grace given freely, that we might live in him. If they could not accept this, how could they accept the risen Christ, and his ascension? It is through grace (granted by the Father) that they come to believe, to live in him.
But many left him, because they could not understand. And Jesus asked the twelve (John most often refers to those we know as Jesus’ disciples as “the Twelve”; other followers are also called disciples) if they also wished to go away. But Peter has understood – he says, essentially, no one else has the answers we seek; you have the words of eternal life. Throughout this gospel, the author speaks of eternal life, not just as life after death, but as true life in this life, life in genuine relationship with God, the knowledge of God’s love and grace in our lives. It is this that Peter finally understands. We sometimes make the same mistake that the crowd was making; we try to give literal meaning to Jesus’ words in John, when everything has levels of meaning. If we think of ‘eternal life’ in John as meaning only whether you go to heaven or hell after you die, then we have missed the point as surely as they did. We find life in Christ, live life in grace, starting now! This is eternal life – it begins in the present, not the future.
The number of followers was drastically cut that day; Jesus was looking for those who believed in him, who could move forward in God’s will, in a life in relationship to God. But one who stayed, one of the twelve, would be the one who betrayed him, and he knew that. And so, this passage ends on an ominous note.