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The Holy One of God

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “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.” John 6.66-69.

“From which time?” we might ask. The answer is: from the time Jesus fed the five thousand (John 6.1-13) but then, “knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6.15). In a subsequent discourse in the synagogue with those who have been following him, he makes it clear that, though the bread with which he has fed the crowds was real enough, he is not here on earth to satisfy material longings and bring in a kingdom of economic prosperity. The “bread” that he offers is spiritual bread — “food that endures to eternal life” (John 6.27) — and he is that bread. He offers only himself as the one in whom people can find total satisfaction, both now and in the age to come. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6.35).

And that is the turning point for most of those who have been following Jesus. They had been looking for someone who would take on Rome, bring them freedom from foreign oppression, restore the throne of David, bring in a golden age of plenty; and Jesus had made it plain that he was not that leader so they left him. But not the Twelve. They continued with him as (it would seem from the other gospels) Jesus took them north to Caesarea Philippi, where he asked them two critical questions. From the other gospels we learn that one of the questions was, “Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16.15, Mark 8.29, Luke 9.20), while here in John 6 we learn that the other question was, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” But in all the gospels it is Simon Peter who makes the response.

To the first question, or maybe to both questions, that response is “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” — for in the manuscript that the King James Version follows, those are the words that Jesus speaks here (in John 6.69) rather than the words “you are the Holy One of God” that we find in this morning’s reading from the New International Version.

In either case, the response is breath-taking. “You are not merely a second Moses,” Peter is saying. “You are not merely a prophet. No. You are the Messiah. The one for whom Israel has been waiting.” But if we hold to the reading of the better manuscript used by the NIV in this morning’s reading from John, the title “Holy One of God” goes even further than “the Christ” of the other gospels. Only one person is “holy” and that is God himself. He was “the Holy One of Israel” (2 Kings 19.22, Psalm 71.22, etc) or just “the Holy One” (Job 6.10, Psalm 22.3, etc), so to confess Jesus as “the Holy One of God” was to say a massive “yes” to the “I AM” that Jesus used of himself in “I AM the bread of life” (John 6.35) and on numerous other occasions — the “I AM” of divinity as declared to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3.14).

Peter had grasped what those who had deserted Jesus had failed to grasp. That, somehow, Jesus was God himself, bringing the life of God to those who put their trust in him. Peter had felt that life flow into him as Jesus spoke. And how, he asked, could a person possibly walk away from such a one? Where else could a person possible go?

You are the King of glory,
You are the Prince of Peace,
You are the Lord of heaven and earth,
You’re the Son of righteousness.
Angels bow down before You,
worship and adore,
for You have the words of eternal life,
You are Jesus Christ the Lord.
Hosanna to the Son of David!
Hosanna to the King of kings!
Glory in the highest heaven,
for Jesus the Messiah reigns!

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