Jesus had fed a great multitude (likely significantly more than ten thousand souls – cf. John 6:10b) with only five small barley cakes and two fish, on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. The crowd was awed tremendously by this “sign,” perceiving the Lord to be “the prophet” they had long anticipated (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15-17). They wanted to enthrone him as their king—and would have had he not withdrawn himself alone into a nearby mountain (6:15).
Probably very discouraged that their Lord had ignored the misguided overture (their own knowledge of the divine plan being yet limited), the disciples therefore entered a boat at evening time and made their way westward across the lake—a journey of about a dozen miles at its widest point. When they were three or four miles out, sometime between three and six in the morning (Mark 6:48), Christ approached the boat, walking on the face of the “distressed” waters (Matthew 14:24). This miracle, in their presence alone, almost certainly was designed to lift their troubled spirits.
That the sign stirred them is clear, for they “worshipped him,” acknowledging him as the Son of God (Matthew 14:33). And yet, their faith in him was far from complete, for the miracle of the loaves/fish still had not made its full impact upon their understanding. Mark forcefully describes their hearts as, in a sense, “hardened” (6:52).
On the following day the multitude, discovering that Christ was no longer in the region, boarded boats for Capernaum, seeking him. When they tracked him down, Jesus gave them a kindly rebuke, for he perceived that many were interested primarily in more bread to satiate their hunger (John 6:26b). Others, however, apparently fathomed the Lord’s supernatural ability and they brought their sick for healing—and many were made whole (Mark 6:54ff).
The Savior gave sobering instruction about the need to “work for” the “food” which results in “eternal life,” which the Son of Man would “give.” Note that “work,” i.e., due diligence (involving obedience), is not antagonistic to the idea of a “gift,” as many sincere religionists contend (see John 6:27-29). In fact, even “belief” is designated as a “work” (v. 29).
Still focusing upon their hunger, the multitude appealed to Old Testament Scripture, suggesting that Moses provided bread for Israel in the wilderness—with the obvious inference that they wanted more from the miracle-worker. Presently, however, Christ directed the exchange to the nature of “true bread” (v. 32). Several times the expression “out of heaven” (vv. 31-33) was employed. Finally employing strong metaphorical language, the Savior declared: “I am the bread of life” (v. 35), and then, “I am come down from heaven” (vv. 38, 41).
When the Jews heard that “down-out-of-heaven” affirmation, it caused a vigorous stir. They caught the drift of what he said about having come “down out of heaven,” but surmised they had the perfect rebuttal. They thus replied, in effect: “You did not come out of heaven; your parents are Joseph and Mary. How can you possibly claim a pre-earthly existence in heaven?”
Christ might well have refuted their logic, and have argued the case for his virginal conception and birth; but he did not. The evidence for that would be amply woven into the sacred record for documentation at the appropriate time; they were not ready for this disclosure at the moment. Time and again the careful student notes that Jesus did not respond to insincere quibbles in the course of his teaching. Such would have been a waste of precious time. Rather there were crucial issues pressing and these were to be developed at present. Modern Bible teachers would do well to take note of this wise teaching procedure.
The Divine Drawing
With a most emphatic thrust of truth, the Master Teacher said:
No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draws him: and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father, and has learned, comes unto me” (6:44-45).
It is upon this passage that we pause to focus our attention. The following points are worthy of serious reflection.
It is important to note first of all that Jesus appeals to the Old Testament (Isaiah 54:13) to buttress his argument. The term “prophets” is a general reference, much as when we say, “The Bible says . . .” The expression “it is written” (found eighty-two times in the New Testament, including parallels) always refers to a divine document, the validity of which is unequivocally affirmed.
The first clause of this sentence, “No man can come unto me, except the Father that sent me draw him,” has been one of the most abused texts of the New Testament for many centuries. For example, John Calvin taught that man is “so enslaved by the yoke of sin, that he cannot of his own nature aim at good either in wish or actual pursuit” (1975a, 265). Thus one “cannot possibly come to Christ unless drawn by the Spirit.” He is drawn “both in mind and spirit exalted far above [his] own understanding” (Ibid., 500). The drawing is not indirectly through the Scriptures, but “inwardly by the Spirit” (Ibid., 277). God works in the elect so as to “guide, turn, and govern [their] heart by his Spirit” (Ibid., 269). The “grace of God is insipid to men, until the Holy Spirit gives it its savor” (1975b, 253).
A careful examination of the passage, however, reveals the following facts.
The statement, “No man can come to me [Christ], except the Father that sent me draw him,” is explicit. The only route to Christ is by means of the “drawing” of God. But that does not completely explain the issue. Two questions are paramount: (a) Is the “drawing” by God irresistible; i.e., is the divine drawing an appeal to man’s mind (intellect and emotion), or is it a force so strong as to bypass “free will”? (b) Is the drawing miraculous, by the direct impulse of the Holy Spirit, or is it indirectly exerted through a divinely appointed means?
In his commentary on The Gospel According to John, the late Leon Morris argued that it is utterly impossible for a man to come to Christ on “his own volition”; rather God himself must initiate the action. He repudiated the idea that choice is “the free decision of man.” Calvin is quoted to the effect that the Spirit moves upon some, to turn them from unwilling to willing. It is alleged that God’s drawing power is always triumphant; it simply cannot be resisted (1995, 328-329).
This view is antagonistic to the teaching of the New Testament. First, the “drawing” is not by a force that is “irresistible,” as some claim (Sproul 1994, 69). Sproul cites Kittel on the word “draw” as meaning “an irresistible and supernatural force” (1964, 503), but this descriptive does not fit the biblical evidence. It is “commentary,” not “definition.” (For a discussion of the distinction between “draw” and “drag,” see: Trench 1890, section xxi; Vine 1991, on “drag”). If “draw” connoted an “irresistible force,” then all would be saved, for later in this Gospel narrative the Lord says: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself” (12:32). The “drawing” is a beneficent pull. The Lord said to ancient Israel: “I have loved you with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn you” (Jeremiah 31:3; cf. Song of Solomon 1:4).
Second, in verse forty-five Jesus reveals precisely how God draws people to Christ. Quoting from the prophet Isaiah (54:13)—and possibly alluding to Jeremiah 31:34—the Lord employs four verbs to stress the personal volition of human beings and the method employed in their being “drawn” to him. They must be taught, hear, learn, and come. To ignore these inspired words is exegetically irresponsible.
(1) The term “taught” is from the adjective didaktos, found only twice in the Greek New Testament. The word has to do with “being taught, instructed” (Danker et al. 2000, 240). In 1 Corinthians 2:13 it is employed of the teaching that ultimately originates with the Holy Spirit but is made known by means of words through men who convey the message—either those inspired originally, or now by means of their words as recorded in Scripture. Professor Merrill Tenney wrote: “Verse 45 indicates that God would do his drawing through the Scriptures and that those who were obedient to God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures would come to Jesus” (1981, 76). Bernard observed that the “drawing” was by “being taught” (1928, 205).
Some appeal to 1 Thessalonians 4:9—“[Y]ou have no need to have any one write to you, for your yourselves have been taught of God”—in an attempt to establish the theory that the teaching is an internal, subjective instruction by the Spirit (Hiebert 1971, 178). The actual point here being made, however, is that the teaching regarding brotherly love had been done previously (in fact since their conversion and their comprehension that they all were “family” by virtue of a common “new birth”), and such an elementary matter did not need to be rehearsed in the present letter.
(2) The word “heard” is important for it is preliminary to “coming” to Christ. The verb is a past tense form of akouo. Mounce notes that there are at least five senses in which akouo is used in the New Testament. In this case, it is a hearing with a view to learning (2007, 327); to receive information about something (cf. Danker et al. 2000, 38).
(3) “Learn” derives from manthano, “to gain knowledge or skill by instruction” (Danker et al. 2000, 615). It involves more than mere exposure to information; it embraces the idea of processing that data. As Mounce observes, it “involves not only exposure to information but also comprehension” (2007, 397). It conveys the sense of “understanding” (cf. Matthew 9:13).
No one is qualified to “come to” Christ, or even needs to, if he is incompetent to understand the rudiments of the gospel (Romans 1:16). Paul’s statement in Romans 6:17 that gospel obedience is “from the heart” shows, among other things, “that our decision to surrender to God was our own choice and was not coerced or irresistibly imposed upon us” (Cottrell 1996, 413). This nullifies Calvinism’s dogma of predestination, and denominationalism’s practice of infant sprinkling.
(4) The fourth verb is “comes.” Only those who are “taught” the truth, listen intently with the motive of “learning,” and who understand the foundational elements of the gospel, are qualified to “come” to Christ. While “coming” is the result of God’s “drawing,” by means of revealed truth, the term contains the implication that one has the ability, when the preliminary requisites are satisfied, to come to the Lord. Coming is not the result of divine compulsion; it derives from an intellectual and emotional decision to surrender to the Savior.
Simple logic provides a clear picture of the process. God “draws”; people “come.” Those who “come,” however, are those who have been “taught,” who have “heard” and “learned.” Hence it is perfectly transparent that God “draws” sincere people by means of gospel instruction by which people are taught, hear, and learn.
Jesus invited the people of certain cities in Galilee to “come unto me” (Matthew 11:28), and that invitation had resident within it the implied ability to yield. Why invite those to come, who simply cannot, due to an alleged depravity that holds them incapacitated by sin? In the final days prior to his crucifixion, Christ wept over the city of Jerusalem, lamenting the fact that though he had longed to gather them under his protective care, they “would not” (Matthew 23:37). There is a vast difference between “would not” and “could not.” However, if a stubborn person practices “I won’t” long enough, it can become “I can’t” (John 12:39). See also John 5:40 and Revelation 22:17 for the matter of free will.
When John 6:44-45 is rescued from the morass of sectarian theology, it becomes thrillingly fresh, invigorating the soul with instructive principles that guide one through the correct processes to the redemption that is through Christ. Let us study this methodology, exhort our contemporaries to pursue it, and rejoice when they become our kinsmen in the Lord.