Sermon: Offended By Jesus

John 6:56-69

I want to introduce you to a new religion. It will involve cannibalism, vampires and the overthrow of cherished ancient traditions. Are you interested?

Or are you shocked? Because that is what the first followers of Jesus thought he was proposing. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,’ he said (verse 56). They were offended, and many on the fringes of belief turned away from him in this reading. They were scandalised by his claims.

He called people to eat his flesh – well, who wants cannibalism? And he said they were to drink his blood. Remember that Jews never drank the blood from a dead animal, because it was thought to contain the life of the creature.

Vampires? OK, actually no. I just wanted to underline the shocking nature of Jesus’ words about drinking his blood. But maybe you get a feeling for how Jesus’ first hearers felt scandalised by his teaching. We may find it hard to appreciate that, because two thousand years of familiarity have changed our perceptions. But in its original context, the person and message of Jesus were offensive.

And today, for all our familiarity with Jesus, it is just as possible to be offended by him, his words and his deeds. If we look at what upset those early disciples, we might get some clues to some issues today. Who knows? We might be the ones who need to change. Let’s see.

Firstly, Jesus himself and his teaching is offensive:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ (Verse 60)

You might think that gentle Jesus, meek and mild would respond with a word of gentle explanation, but no:

But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?’ (Verses 61-62)

What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? This is not only about the Ascension itself, but also about what leads up to it, for in John’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to the Cross. This is therefore about the Cross, the Resurrection and the Ascension. This is about the deity of Jesus, and what he accomplished in his atoning death and resurrection before he returned to the Father’s right hand.

How is that offensive? Let me recount a story.

In one past church, an elderly couple joined the congregation. They began worshipping with us every week. After a while, I visited them and they raised the question of church membership. In the past, they had been active members of a Baptist church, but must have lapsed for a period of years. Having plied me with tea and cakes, they asked, “Are we good enough to join your church?”

That is a question that can only be asked by people who don’t understand the Cross, or who find the Cross offensive. Like a fool, I paid insufficient attention to it and chose to explain it away. I brought them into church membership, and it was a terrible mistake. The husband in particular spent every week’s home group ripping to shreds the previous Sunday’s preacher. Week after week, until the two leaders of the group could take it no more and resigned. We ended up having to close the group.

All because I didn’t pay attention to a couple who didn’t understand the Cross, and who later showed in their behaviour that they didn’t appreciate grace. I should have let them be offended by the Gospel.

The trouble is, a Jesus ascended on a Cross humbles us. We have to lay aside the pride of our respectable lives, and kneel before him as sinners needing forgiveness.

I’ve seen it not only in the respectable but also in the intellectual. People want to find God by their own cleverness, but God will not have that. I have seen such people harbour all kinds of destructive behaviour, all because they will not kneel at the Cross.

Those who are merely interested in Jesus may well fall away, like the crowds here. Those who are willing to meet him at the Cross are those who will be his true disciples.

Secondly, the work of the Holy Spirit is offensive to some. Jesus goes on to say:

‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ (Verses 63-64a)

We may only come to know God through the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes the presence of God real to us and the Word of God alive to us. Normal human abilities – ‘the flesh’ – are ‘useless’, says Jesus.

This too is an affront to many people. We have lived through several centuries of scientific discoveries, breakthroughs and advances. Human society has benefitted hugely from many of these things. The idea has arisen that the human mind will ultimately solve all problems. Thus today, leading atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others mock the thought of anything that cannot be perceived by human reason. If it does not originate from reason, then it is superstition.

But these ideas are false. Yes, society has seen great wonders, not least in medicine. But the same human reason is fallen through sin, and science has given us nuclear weapons and climate change. Ultimately, the thought that reason can solve everything is pure arrogance and idolatry. God is not against the use of the mind at all – in fact it can be properly used to his glory – but he knows how we idolise our reason and so,  in the words of John Arnott, ‘God offends our minds to reveal our hearts.’

And indeed the Gospel is not merely available to intellectuals – thank God! It is revealed by the Holy Spirit, whose work is available to all.

In our tradition of Christianity, we are so used to emphasising human free will (and I’m not saying we should ditch that!), but sometimes we stress it so much that we forget the life of faith is impossible without the prior work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit draws people to Christ; only then do we make response.

Listen for reference to that work of the Spirit in part of a testimony from a friend of mine:

‘I wasn’t raised in a Christian household, I was saved in a summer camp when I was 14….one night afterwards, I was dialing my radio around and found a Christian radio station. As I listened, I could feel the Spirit inside me awakening, and that station was basically how God “fed me” while I was at home. When I got old enough to drive myself, I was able to go to church myself.’

Once again, we see that it is our pride that gets offended – this time by the need to rely on the Holy Spirit for life in Christ. But also, this has implications for our evangelism. The prime need in our outreach is not the latest techniques, but prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of us, working in people’s lives before we get there. Let us be released from having to think up new clever (and possibly manipulative) schemes, and instead remember that the Holy Spirit does the spadework. Let us call on the Spirit in prayer to do that in the lives of those who need Christ.

Well, if we’ve talked about the Cross of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit in the first two points, it won’t take a brain surgeon to work out that the third and final area in which people find the teaching of Jesus offensive is in what he says about God the Father.

And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ (Verse 65)

Now again, that’s the kind of verse to make those of us in the Wesleyan Arminian tradition, who believe in the importance of human free will, to get rather nervous. It gladdens the hearts of Calvinists, who believe that some people are predestined by God to salvation, while he predestines the rest to damnation. But all it really stresses is another version of what we’ve just said about the Holy Spirit – namely that the first move in salvation is God’s.

It has always been the case. The first missionary in the Bible was God, walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening, calling, ‘Adam, where are you?’ God called Abraham and the patriarchs as he formed a people for himself. He called Moses, the Judges and the prophets. Finally, he sent his Son.

And how good it is that God has always made the first move. For as Leon Morris has put it, writing on this verse:

‘Left to himself, the sinner prefers his sin. Conversion is always a work of grace.’[1]

It is God’s work to bring us to the possibility of salvation. It does not mean he is capricious: he wants all to be saved. But remembering what we have already learned about the need for humility, that comes into play here again, for if God makes the first move, we must pay attention. John Wesley thus commented on this verse:

Unless it be given – And it is given to those only who will receive it on God’s own terms.’[2]

The Good News is that God sets out to rescue those who, by their own instincts, would always prefer to remain in sin. The Good Challenge is that we must accept God’s remedy. We must come on God’s own terms. Therefore that means not only welcoming Christ as God’s Saviour, but also bowing before him as Lord. If we can only come to Christ because God the Father makes the first move, then we end up coming to God not only for the blessings, but also for the obligations.

We can ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ and the answer will be about salvation from the penalty of sin, the practice of sin and the presence of sin. But to ask that question alone is to indulge in religious consumerism. Because the Father makes the first move there is another question: ‘What’s in it for God?’ And the answer involves him incorporating us into the People of God, because his desire has always been to form a people for himself, a new community that lives under his kingly reign. And therefore we must rise to the challenge and make the Church just such a community, instead of fighting and plotting against one another, and settling for cliques instead of community.

In Conclusion, then, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes the initiative in saving the human race. This brings us to humility at the foot of the Cross and in dependence upon the grace of the Father and the power of the Spirit. We lay aside everything we trumpet about our respectability and intellect. But this news frees us from other tyrannies. No longer need we rack our brains for new methods of evangelism, when instead we begin in prayer for the Holy Spirit to move. And in the converted life, the Father who has graciously reached out to a world of persistent sinners not only saves us but makes us his subjects. Our only proper response is grateful obedience.

May we have the grace not to be offended, but to become God’s loyal servants and friends.

[1] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, p387. Exclusive language unchanged from the source.

[2] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, p330.


  1. forgive me but I didn’t get your point of relating the story about the ex baptist couple. Surely membership or otherwise wasn’t a requirement for them to attend the group?

    Wesley wrote and taught a lot about sanctification. It begins with understanding the true meaning and power of the cross … but in his day it was worked out in small groups where the belong believe behave ethos was allowed to shape the band or society.

    Seems to me the problem wasn’t allowing membership in the first place but it was in assuming that membership means that we’ve got it all together – and that is never the case. We need to be held accountable for our actions – mutually accountable – and part of the role of the leaders in the group (with you perhaps) was to ensure that happened.

    Loved your conclusion 🙂 thanks !!!

    PS As I said it’s possible I misunderstood what you were trying to illustrate here through this story. If so forgive me and feel free to delete this comment!


    1. Lorna,

      Thanks for your perceptive comment. I wrote this sermon 2-3 weeks ago ready to preach this coming Sunday when I return from leave. So I have a few days to think about your point and possibly revise what I said! Yes, in one sense the problem wasn’t membership, because certainly the couple could have joined the cell group anyway and wreaked havoc. There was a real difficulty in how to hold them accountable over their criticism of preachers, as their prime target was me. Naturally I wouldn’t like to comment here about the group leaders, as that would be inappropriate.

      I guess my main point was that in retrospect I wish I’d been more offensive about the Cross and grace with them, in the hope and prayer that either (preferably) they would have changed or they would have been put off.


  2. very well said……

    I’ve always, always found it sad when I encounter people who are offended when the Grace of God is presented to them.

    We live in an apartment complex, and my 11 yr old daughter, who is very outgoing, has made many friends here. Now, none of them are in Christian households (at least, from what we can tell ), but my daughter has definitely discovered which of their parents are “offended” by her simple witness of going to church, and talking about God with these friends.

    We’ve had a couple such parents come to us asking us to tell our daughter to stop filling their child’s head with “that God junk” (they used a somewhat stronger word), and yet others have been happy to allow their children to come with mine to our church’s Summer Vacation Bible School.

    I’m reminded of a favorite Michael Card song, which says,

    “He will be the truth and will offend them one and all,
    A stone that makes men stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.
    Many will be broken so that He can make them whole,
    Many will be crushed and lose their own soul.”

    (……Michael Card, “Scandalon”, from the album “The Life”)

    This point you made sums it up for me..

    “The prime need in our outreach is not the latest techniques, but prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will go ahead of us, working in people’s lives before we get there. Let us be released from having to think up new clever (and possibly manipulative) schemes, and instead remember that the Holy Spirit does the spadework. Let us call on the Spirit in prayer to do that in the lives of those who need Christ.”

    —-and this is all that our daughter has done….we pray with her, and she goes out and shines her little light all over the place. We’ve reminded her, when she has encountered resistance, that her job is only to plant – she can’t make it grow.
    And that those who are not receptive are not offended by her, but by the Christ she is representing.

    P.S. Dave, thank you for not being the kind of minister who has forgotten, or has at least shied away from, the offensive parts of the Gospel. There are already far too many promoting the “feel good” gospel, and they have many listeners – who only want their ears tickled. Thank you for the reminder that “our only proper response is grateful obedience.”


    1. Owen,

      Thanks for these kind words, and we really must pray for your daughter and her witness! What I find particularly interesting in your comments is the idea (from the other side of the Atlantic) of being offended by grace. So often it has been said that Pelagianism is the ‘English heresy’ – that is, the idea that we can contribute by our own good works to our salvation. Clearly it isn’t just the English!


  3. So I had to look up tha 50-cent word you threw in there…..(Pel…..pelani…pelg….oh, whatever!). But I suppose it does me good to expand my vocabulary! 😉

    I agree with you…..that is just as prevalent on this side of the pond, too……we’ve also encountered a sense of “well, what do I need this “grace” for? I’m already a good person! (read: are you telling me I have something to be sorry for?) ”

    Curious – from whence have you heard it referred to as the “English Heresy”? I’ve not heard that one.


  4. I would be interested in knowing what you think about an article on predestination I recently wrote…and how you think it ties into grace and salvation. The name of it is, “Does predestination violate free will?” and it is at if you have a moment.


    1. Catherine,

      I’m sorry, but I don’t seem to be able to find your article on that website. Could you give me the full URL, please?

      Thank you.


        1. Hi Catherine,

          Thanks for posting the link to your article. It’s very thoughtful, and I appreciated it. I think it’s possible to see the free will of God as being greater than our free will – because God has more power than us. (The existentialist philosopher Sartre said that to speak of unlimited human free will was ludicrous: I may choose to go to Paris, but if I do not have the wherewithal, then my ‘free will choice’ is ludicrous.) That, of course, is not the same as the kind of predestination that so emphasises God’s sovereignty that we are only cogs in the machine (and which I would repudiate).

          Historically, there has been more than simply a debate between Calvinists who believe in predestination and Arminians who stress free will. The Calvinist position should strictly be called ‘double predestination’, since it believes that God predestines two groups: the elect to salvation and the reprobate to damnation. Luther believed in predestination, but only talked about it with regard to those who were saved. I am not sure what he would have said about Calvin’s second group.

          With regard to the question of God foretelling the future, the classic (and controversial book) The Openness Of God by Clark Pinnock and others makes a distinction between conditional and unconditional foretelling. Some things God has decided to do regardless (unconditional); other things depend on how we respond (conditional – this includes things such as judgement).

          Within some of these parameters (i.e., not the Calvinist ones), I can affirm that anything God may choose to predestine does not contradict human free will.

          How does that sound for starters? Would you see this as being similar to your talk of God weaving our free will decisions into his sovereign purposes (if I have understood you correctly)?


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