John 6:37, 44 and 65
All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.
And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
These verses are some of the clearest verses teaching the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. In John 6:44 Jesus makes it clear that no man in all of history can come to Jesus unless the Father personally draws him. And in verse 37 Jesus says plainly that those who have belonged to God from all eternity will most certainly come. The conclusion is inescapable; only those chosen by God will come and those chosen will most certainly come. This is irresistible grace plain and simple!
It must be admitted that without considering the historical context of John’s Gospel and the situation of early church, these passages seem to say just what Reformed Theology says they do. But as disciples of Christ we must always consider the context of scripture before drawing any conclusions. In order to clarify the context of these often misused verses we will ask three questions: What, Who and How.
What is Historic Context and Purpose of John’s Gospel?
Before considering John 6:37 and 44 in their immediate context it is important for us to first take a look at the big picture. By looking at the historical context of John’s Gospel as a whole we will come to understand the purpose for which it was written. This will help us as we turn our attention to the events and dialogue of John chapter 6.
“In the beginning,” from the story of creation until the twelfth chapter of Genesis, God dealt with humanity from all nations. Then in chapter 12 God began to focus his attentions on Abraham and his descendants. God had chosen Abraham so that through him he could build a nation that would “bless all nations” by the coming of Christ (Gen.12:1-3). He kept that narrow focus until the time for that world-wide blessing had come. John’s Gospel proclaims, “In the beginning was the Word,” and that eternal Word had now come into the world as “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:1-9).
God sent a messenger to be a witness to the coming of the Messiah, John the Baptist. John was sent so “that through him all might believe” (John 1:7 – NIV). But most of the Jews rejected God’s desire for them. So John writes, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). But this did not destroy God’s plan, because Jesus did not only come for Israel. So though the majority of Israel had rejected him, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). God was once again focusing on all nations. He was not concerned with someone’s natural ancestry, but with how they responded to his Son. Jesus came to save everyone who would place their trust in him no matter what nation they were from.
This was the context of John’s Gospel; this was the controversy of his day. Messianic blessing was not for Israel only, but through Christ all could be saved. By the time John wrote his Gospel there were more non-Jewish believers in Messiah than Jewish ones. The Jewish religious leaders of John’s days persecuted Jewish believers in Messiah and despised the Gentile followers of Christ. Christians, even the Jewish ones, were not allowed to attend the synagogues. In Revelation 2:9 Jesus refers to the Jewish attitude towards the Christians during the time we are considering, “I know … the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” And again he says, “Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie – behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you” (Rev. 3:9).
The Gospel of John was written to encourage the believers in Christ that they were the people of God, and to encourage unbelievers of all nations that they could become part of God’s holy people by trusting in Christ. John’s way of encouraging those persecuted by the Jewish authorities was to show the hostility Christ faced from the Jewish authorities of his day. And to let them see that those among the Jewish nation that rejected Christ were never part of God’s true people. John’s Gospel taught them what Paul teaches elsewhere for nearly the same reason, “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6).
A Quick Glance
As we skim through the Gospel of John we will see that almost every chapter in some way refers back to this historical context. John wrote his Gospel to encourage Christians, both Jew and Gentile, that they were the true people of God; that it is not ancestry, but faith, that pleases God. In chapter 1 verse 29 we read John the Baptist’s testimony that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” To us this is a simple statement of fact, but to the Jewish leaders of John the Baptist’s day it challenged their assumption that the Messiah was only for the Jews. In John 1:47 we see Jesus make one’s character and spiritual condition the means of determining who are true Jews when he declares of Nathanael, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!”
In chapter 2 Jesus prophesies, with his actions, about the soon destruction of the Jewish temple. He shows his displeasure with the corrupt practices of the Jewish nation by turning over the tables of the money-changers and chasing out those selling animals for sacrifice with a whip (vs. 13-17). He goes even further by declaring that from now on his body will be the temple of God, making himself the center of all those devoted to worshipping God (vs. 18-22).
In John 3:16 we read the ultimate controversial statement. Jesus proclaims that Israel was not the sole focus of God’s saving love, but that “God … loved the world.” And he again emphasizes that it is not being Jewish that makes one acceptable to God, but “whoever believes” will receive eternal life. In verse 18 Jesus declares that being Jewish cannot save anyone when he declares that “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” What is to us such a natural summary of the Christian faith was horribly offensive to the Jewish leaders of the Apostle John’s day, and would have been very encouraging to John’s Christian readers.
In chapter 4 we read about a confusing day in the life of Jesus’ Jewish disciples. Not only did he minister to a Samaritan woman, but then he goes on to minister to her entire village. In his ministry to her he made it clear that one’s spiritual standing with God will no longer be dependent on any national or racial traditions. He told her in verses 21 and 23, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” He made himself the center of all true religion when he told her, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (vs. 14). At the end of his time with the Samaritans they made an explosive statement about the Jewish Messiah, “We know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (vs. 42).
In chapter 5 verses 19-47 Jesus confronts the religious leaders and tells them that by rejecting him, they have rejected God. He offends their religious pride by accusing them of not believing in the writings of Moses when he says, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (vs. 46-47) He challenges them to stop merely reading the scriptures and believe them; for life is not found in the Bible, it is found in him (vs. 39). But he knows they won’t come to him for life because they have never listened to God’s voice and do not have God’s word inside of them (vs. 37-38). Because of their rejection of him he concluded that they “do not have the love of God within” them (vs. 42). We must understand that he is declaring plainly that these religious Jews, zealous for the Law, did not belong to God. No wonder they wanted to kill him!
In chapter 7 verse 17 he accuses the religious leaders of not wanting to do God’s will when he says, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will” he will believe in me. They show that they don’t want to do God’s will by rejecting him. In Chapter 8 he tells them that they are “slave[s] to sin” (vs. 34) and are not Abraham’s true descendants (vs. 39-40). He goes on to tell them that they are not children of God as they claim, but are actually children of the Devil, who seek their father’s desires (vs. 41-44). He concludes by telling them, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (vs. 47). This was quite an amazing thing to say to the leaders of God’s chosen nation! In doing so he made it clear once again that ancestry has no benefit in the kingdom of God.
In chapter 9 he tells the “enlightened” religious leaders that they are spiritually blind (vs. 39-41). In John 10:7 he calls the leaders of Israel “thieves and robbers.” In John 12:41 we are told that some of the Jews believed in him, “but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue.” And in verse 32 when the Apostles bring some Greeks to talk with him, he declares that after his death he “will draw all people” to himself, not only Jews, but also Gentiles.
John wrote his Gospel to challenge the claims of the Jews in his day. They claimed that only those descended from Abraham belonged to God. Any Gentiles who said they followed the Jewish Messiah were completely “deceived.” And those Jews who followed Jesus were no longer considered part of God’s holy people. John used episodes in Jesus’ ministry and teaching to show that this claim was completely unfounded. It was no longer one’s ancestry or national traditions that determined whether or not they belonged to God, but it was their faith in the Jewish Messiah that made them true members of God’s people. The Apostle John’s point is best summed up by the words of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:8-9, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” John is telling us, that this is exactly what God has done!
John faces this attitude of the Jewish nation to the new born Messianic movement head-on in his Gospel. But he is not the only one who faced it and addressed it. In Matthew 21:33-46 we see that this issue was also on Matthew’s mind. He relates a parable of Jesus about the Jewish religious leaders (vs. 45). In verse 42 he explained that he was the “cornerstone” of Israel and that by rejecting him the leaders of Israel were bringing judgment on themselves. For that reason the kingdom of God was going to be taken away from them and given “to a people producing its fruit” (vs. 43). In their rebellion against God they rejected the Messiah he had sent. They were soon going to “fall on” Jesus and have him crucified, but he would be vindicated by God and come back to “crush” them (vs. 44). The important thing to note in what Matthew relates is that he was making it clear that Israel was being redefined. He was telling his readers that Israel was no longer identified by their blood-relations with Abraham, but by their spiritual relationship with the Messiah.
Peter makes a similar point in 1 Peter 2:1-10. He also points out that Jesus is the cornerstone on which the true Israel of God is built. Those that reject him are under God’s judgment and those that believe are made part of God’s “chosen race, royal priesthood and holy nation” (vs.9). Peter tells them that they were once not a people of any importance, but that in Christ they had been made the people of God (vs. 10). Israel is defined by their response to Jesus Christ, he is the cornerstone! If you trust him you are in, if you reject him you are out!
No one spoke more on this subject than Paul the Apostle. One need only read Galatians 3:15-29 to see this principle clearly presented. Paul wanted the Galatian Gentiles, and any Jews that might be listening in, to know that people were not children of Abraham by their ancestry, but by their faith in Christ Jesus. Jesus was the “seed” of Abraham through whom blessing for the world had been promised (vs. 16). And those that received him would be made the true “seed” of Abraham (vs. 29).
In Romans 9:6-7 Paul wrote, “Not all who are descended from Israel (i.e. Jacob) belong to Israel (i.e. God’s people), and not all are children of Abraham because they are his [physical] offspring.” Starting in the second half of verse 7 and continuing on until verse 13 he shares a principle of how God chooses his people. God promised that the children of Abraham would be blessed, but then he narrows that promise down to the descendants of Isaac only. This means that the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael were excluded from the promise of Abraham. But he doesn’t stop there; he narrows the promise down even more by saying that not all of Isaac’s descendants would receive the blessing, but only those born of Jacob. Esau’s children were descendants of Isaac and should have partaken of the covenant promise to Isaac, but God in his sovereignty limited the promise to the line of Jacob.
Paul shows this pattern in God’s way of election to teach us that now God has once again limited his promise to one of Abraham’s descendants. Peter called this descendant the “cornerstone.” In Galatians Paul used the word “seed” to describe him. But in Romans 9:32-33 he calls him the “stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.” He then tells us that those who “believe in him will not be put to shame.” In this way Paul is telling us just what John is trying to convey in his Gospel, namely that the promise of acceptance by God as one of his people is determined by our connection to Christ. The Jews who boasted that they were children of Abraham didn’t have a leg to stand on if they rejected Christ because it was through Christ that Abraham’s children were named (vs. 7).
If we ignore the historical context and overall purpose of John’s Gospel when we come to the verses that we are considering in this series of posts we will grossly misinterpret them as Reformed theology has done. But if we keep the context of the early church’s persecution by the unbelieving Jews in mind we will begin to see John 6:37, 44 and 65 in a whole new light, a biblical light.
In this post we have begin to look at the overall context of John 6. In the next post we will look at the content of John chapters 5, 7 & 8, focusing on how they affect our understanding of John chapter 6.
To be continued…