Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | May 26, 2008

John 6:35-47: Historical Analysis



As consideration to the historical context of this passage is made, it is appropriate to draw attention to the atmosphere of Palestine during the first century AD.  From the time of the exile to the advent of Jesus several significant events occurred within this geographic region.  During the Babylonian captivity of exilic Israel a new power emerged to dominance in the Near East.  It was this Persian king who decreed the return of the exiles to Israel and commissioned them to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:1-2).  A second temple was rebuilt in compliance with this decree and Israel did return to Palestine to occupy the land.  As the dominance of Persia diminished the region was conquered by Alexander the Great whose untimely death left the region on the border between two competing successors.  Thus, the oversight of this land was in continual tension and was exchanged between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires.

In the midst of these political tensions a significant religious event that involved the defilement of the second temple by a Seleucid Emperor culminated in a successful rebellion that resulted in Israelite independence11.  This sparked a period of almost a century of Israelite self-rule, known as the Maccabean period, believed by some to have been the beginning of a messianic kingdom12.  However, this independence did not remain permanent arriving at a cessation with the Roman general Pompey’s conquest of Jerusalem13.  Thus, it dispelled any credibility to the proposition that the messianic kingdom was realized during the Maccabean period.  This realization was followed by a subsequent movement that would be characterized by an eager anticipation of Messianic advent to bring a termination to foreign rule over the land of Palestine.    


The strategy employed by this movement to hasten the arrival of Messiah was a strict and zealous observance of the Mosaic Law in hopes to restore the theocratic dynasty14.  This strategy was most clearly manifested in the Pharisee and Essene sects of that era.  Although, Israel was in the land during this period they would have conceded that without the theocratic dynasty reinstituted, they were still in exile15.  Thus, a fervent attempt to encourage genuine and passionate observance of the stipulations of the Siniatic covenant (1 Kg 8:46-53; 2 Ch 7:13-14) would result in its being reestablished through a Messianic king.  This desire of divine restoration of the Israelite theocracy is indicative of inquiries made by the disciples to Jesus as to when He would reinstitute this kingdom (Acts 1:6-8).  Moreover, this expectation was assimilated into the crowds thinking evident in their own aspirations to coronate Jesus after the miracle of the bread (John 6:15).  No doubt this ethos had significant influence over the thoughts and practices of the day, which merits the consideration of where this belief originated.


In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and all that are in them.  He created man in His own likeness and image then placed in him in a beautiful garden to exercise dominion over creation (Gen 1:26) and produce a holy race (Gen 1:28).  These blessings, however, were provisional requiring full obedience by man of the stipulations provided by his Creator Lord (Gen 2:15-17).  It came about that man failed in that effort listening to the apocryphal word of Satan in lieu of his Creator Lord.  Although stipulations of the covenant made between God and man were to result in death as the immediate consequence for violation, a gracious promise was uttered that a Savior would come to reconcile this broken relationship (Gen 3:15).  This mystery made in the form of a promise was the hope of mankind to redeem them from the curse of death instigated by their federal representative.  Throughout history, this mystery became more defined as to where this promised Seed would emerge (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 49:10).


God chose the nation of Israel to preserve this seed, which resulted in the ratification of another covenant made at Sinai (Ex 24).  This covenant was also conditional, based on obedience to God’s laws with the intent to maintain the distinctness of this privileged nation above all others (Lev 20:26) facilitating the preservation of the lineage for the Messianic Seed.  Analogous to the covenant made at creation, Israel was granted tenure within an earthly paradise as long as they obeyed the stipulations of the covenant (Ex 3:8; Josh 24:13).  Despite continuous failures to live up to the standards of the covenant, God was merciful in preserving this nation.  Moreover, the mystery revealed in the garden also continued to receive further definition (2 Sam 7; 1 Sam 2:35) providing a more robust profile of this Messianic Seed.


Israel continued in there rebellion forsaking the laws of the covenant that God had obligated them to keep (Ezk 21-22).  This continual disregard could no longer be tolerated, which culminated in their eviction from the land in the same manner as their father Adam (2 Kings 24:20).  Nonetheless, God promised a restoration of His covenant people to ensure that the original promise of a Messianic Seed could be kept.  The hope of this promise was the only thing left for Israel to trust in.  The fervency manifested by the zealous sects of the time manifested almost a sense of desperation knowing that the advent of Messiah was the last resort.  Hence, knowing the desperation of their state encouraged their own resolve to control their own destiny through a scrupulous observance of God’s Law (Rom 10:2).  Unfortunately, this well intentioned philosophy resulted in at least two significant detrimental affects.  First, diligent observance of the Law became the exclusive focus of religion to the extent that it had a blinding affect in interpreting the times that confronted them (Matt 11:20-24; Luke 11:29-32; 12:54-56).  Secondly, there was a harmful confusion of the two covenants characteristically distinguished by command (Law) and promise (Gospel).  Both of these influences coupled with the true desire to be freed from foreign oppression restoring the excellence of the theocratic kingdom attributed to the false expectations the people had for Messiah.


This background assists in understanding the surrounding texts of the passage that is the concern of this work in important ways.  It is certainly a peculiar response to those who would seek to make you their king to elude them by withdrawing (John 6:15).  Nonetheless, this was Jesus response to the crowd’s ambitions to coronate Him after the spectacular miracle of the feeding of five thousand.    This evasion by Jesus, however, was necessary to avoid fueling Israel’s false expectations that their obedience induced His coming.  In fact Jesus goes above and beyond mere avoidance of the false hope all the way to obliterating their potential of being fulfilled in Him.  He does this in the subsequent passages that are the cause for the dramatic shift in the crowd’s perspective on Jesus transitioning from king or potential Messiah to a madman or lunatic with His unpalatable hard sayings.  These sayings were extremely effective in decimating this false expectation and so insufferable that even Jesus’ closest disciples had to grapple with their piercing ramifications (John 6:60-71).  


It is also evident that this background facilitates a more effective understanding of the text that is the concern of this work.  The mystery that was first revealed in the ancient garden is being made known in the passage more clearly than ever before.  In addition to unveiling God’s hidden mystery (1 Cor 2:6-14; Rom 16:25-26), Jesus in the midst of this response is clarifying the confusion prevalent during His day relative to the two covenants.  Rather than rely on their own obedience to hasten the advent of Messiah, Jesus clarifies that it was Messiah’s mission to obey the Law on behalf of the people (verse 38) in compliance with the will of the Father (verse 39).  Thus, the conditions would not be fulfilled by the people to induce the coming of Messiah, but the Messiah would come to fulfill the conditions so that the people could inherit the promises (verse 40).  Far from having to meet any conditions to inherit the promises, Israel would simply have to receive the promises earned by Messiah after being compelled to “come” (verse 37) by the work of the Holy Spirit that proceeds from the Father (verse 44) to receive them.


11 Everett Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; WB Eerdmans, Third Edition 2003) 407

12 Everett Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; WB Eerdmans, Third Edition 2003) 452

13 Everett Ferguson Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; WB Eerdmans, Third Edition 2003) 411

14 Ancient Church September 13, 2006 Lecture by Dr. Robert Godfrey

15 Michael S. Horton God of Promise Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker, 2006) 47



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