For several months our five-year-old son Ben had been asking, “When are we going to the Grand Canyon?” When we finally made it there last summer, we asked Ben how it measured up to his expectations. With a little frown, he said, “I thought you said it was a big cannon.”
Son, that’s canyon, not cannon. It is no wonder he had been anxious to make the trip—what little boy wouldn’t want to see a cannon that had been described as “much bigger than downtown Dallas”? He was probably hoping to see them shoot it!
We all have false expectations, and we must be careful lest they lead to disillusionment, especially in our relationship with God.
That’s what happened to many of Jesus’ followers in John 6. Interested in the miracles He had performed, large crowds had turned out to see Jesus and hear Him teach. It was around the time of the Passover (6:4), a celebration in which the Jewish people were reminded of Israel’s deliverance and the prophetic promises of restoration. Many expected the Messiah would come during this season, perhaps bringing manna as Moses had. We can’t be sure of all that this crowd understood or expected, but we have good reason to believe they were conscious of the Passover season, hopeful as they recalled God’s promises, and perhaps looking for a manna-bringing Messiah.
You can imagine what they thought about Jesus. They watched Him heal the sick, teach with authority, and feed several thousand people with only five barley loaves and two fish. Concluding He was the promised one, they attempted to make Jesus their king—even if it meant taking Him by force (6:15).
Choosing not to meet their expectations, Jesus withdrew to the mountain alone. One possible translation of verse 15 is that He fled from them. They had a plan; He chose not to follow it.
They had the right idea and the right person but the wrong method and the wrong timetable. They should have known they couldn’t make somebody king by force; the one who is rightly king will demonstrate his kingship at the proper time. Otherwise, he’s not really the one in charge, is he? One of the major ideas behind this passage is that Jesus is in charge, and that means that He doesn’t always meet our expectations.
Last spring I talked with a seminary student who told me he was confused by the financial problems that he and his wife had encountered. He shared, “We came here by the will of God—we were convinced of that—and we really believed He would simply provide and that things would be easy.” Sorry. He never promised it quite that way. There will be a day with no mourning or crying or pain, but this isn’t that day.
In John 6, when Jesus went to the mountain, His disciples left. Why? Were they expecting Him to meet them on the other side? Were they planning to come back later? He apparently sent them on their way, but we don’t really know what they were expecting. We do know that they were not expecting Him to do what He did.
Jesus walked out on the water and met them. Sometimes Jesus chooses not to do what we expect, and sometimes He chooses to do what we don’t expect. He is in charge.
The crowds spent most of the next morning looking for Jesus, and some of them finally found Him across the sea in Capernaum (6:22–25). They were apparently hoping to get more bread, but Jesus chose once again not to meet their expectations, offering Himself instead as the bread of life. The conversation which followed became increasingly difficult for these disciples, resembling in some ways a high-hurdle race. Each of Jesus’ statements placed an obstacle in front of these followers, and He progressively raised the hurdles by revealing more and more about Himself. By the end, most of the competitors dropped out because the hurdles had become insurmountable.
In observing the signs, the crowds were supposed to encounter Jesus. When people came to Him, they either embraced Him or tripped over Him; He did not allow them to glide over Him without making a choice. By telling them more about Himself, thereby raising the hurdles throughout the conversation, Jesus made sure of one thing. They would run into Him one way or the other and be forced to trip, or to embrace.
As the conversation went on, most tripped. The grumbling began when Jesus described Himself as “the bread that came down from heaven” (6:41), and it turned to open rejection when He said they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood (6:52–60). Jesus was speaking figuratively of their need to trust in His atoning death, but His language offended their sensibilities and His plans violated their expectations. They had come face to face with the real Jesus, and they weren’t sure they liked Him.
“Does this offend you?” Jesus asked. “What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!” (6:61–62). Focusing on the person and authority of Christ was more than most of His followers could tolerate: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (6:66). As they headed for the exits, their disillusionment must have been obvious.
They had wanted to make Jesus king, but He didn’t want any part of it—not yet. They had wanted Him to give them manna to eat, and He offered His body and His blood. They were right in seeing that He was here as Messiah, but He was here as Messiah to die.
Some of you have been there. You’ve had expectations that have turned to disillusionment. You’ve caught yourselves grumbling, perhaps even walking away.
Maybe you thought your new job would be better than the last one.
Maybe you thought Christians didn’t have financial problems.
Maybe you thought nobody would ever take advantage of you or abuse you.
Maybe you thought college would give you a fresh start, but you seem to have all the same old problems.
Maybe you thought God would bring you a spouse if you obeyed Him.
Maybe you thought you would have children, but the halls of your home remain quiet.
Maybe you thought being married would mean you’d never be lonely.
Maybe you thought cancer was something that happened to other people.
Maybe you thought your children would walk closely with Jesus if you attended a good church, but they don’t even believe in Him.
Maybe you thought the prestige of your career would be worth the early sacrifices, but now you near retirement and you already feel forgotten.
Maybe you thought life wouldn’t be so hard. You might not have said it quite this boldly, but the fact is…you thought you had a deal with God.
Sorry. No deals. God didn’t promise those things any more than I promised my son a trip to the “grand cannon.”
Does that make you want to walk away?
Perhaps you aren’t disillusioned by your experience as much as you are unhappy with certain doctrines, such as those presented in John 6. Many people stumble over the promise of literal resurrection, the reality of hell, or the sovereignty of God in salvation. While I was talking about such things in class one day, a student blurted out in a moment of frustration, “If that’s what God is like, then I’m not sure I want to believe in Him” (as if our faith sustained Him or our anger made Him disappear). Maybe you find yourself there, too.
As the skeptics picked themselves up from behind the hurdles and left the track, Jesus turned to 12 men who were still standing. They were a bit bloodied, perhaps, but they had made it over the obstacles of the conversation. These guys were probably just about as confused as anybody with Jesus’ preaching on that day, but they stayed. “‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God’” (6:67–69).
They didn’t understand everything, but they understood enough to stay. These 12 men had seen a little more of Jesus than the other followers had, and they had come to a settled conclusion. They had gone beyond the point of no return. The Twelve may not have been wholly comfortable embracing Him at this point, but they knew they couldn’t reject Him. They couldn’t walk away from Jesus.
In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Phillip Yancey describes some of the difficulties he has experienced in his faith. Yancey’s father died when Yancey was very young, and ever since he has struggled to understand the relationship between the goodness of God and the reality of pain. You can see that struggle in some of his other book titles, Where Is God When It Hurts? and Disappointment with God. Yancey says he sometimes asks himself why he is a Christian. He writes, “the reasons reduce to two: (1) the lack of good alternatives, and (2) Jesus.” With that statement he is alluding to John 6:68–69, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Theologians call that deep conviction the witness of the Holy Spirit. It’s not something we can obtain on our own, sourced as it is in His choice of us and not in our choice of Him. But the work of the Holy Spirit gives us a sense of certainty that goes beyond rational apologetics, scientific critiques, language skills, and fancy preaching. Do you believe? Have you seen enough of Him to recognize that He is telling the truth, and that you have nowhere else to go?
I think again of my son at the Grand Canyon. We asked him if he was disappointed that it was a canyon instead of a cannon, and he said, “No, it’s just different. It’s a lot prettier than a cannon, too.”
The question is, do we cling most firmly to our expectations and our questions, or to Jesus? My hunch is that the real Jesus will be to us more beautiful than anything we might have expected.
Whether or not you see the signs, whether or not you are joined by the crowds, whether or not you understand what Jesus says, whether or not all of your expectations are met, whether or not you receive any immediate reward, following in faith is to say with the disciples, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68, italics added).