When Jesus Christ asked the above question of His twelve apostles, it seemed the tide had turned against Him and His message. The very same day, a large multitude had traveled across the Sea of Galilee to find Jesus. One day prior, five thousand men had been ready to crown Him king. But after Jesus preached to the throngs, “many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?” (John 6:66-67). The Lord’s church presently seems to be facing a similar crisis. Large numbers of once faithful congregations have clearly turned away from the faith. As such, the Lord’s question looms even larger. What valuable lessons can Christians take from His timely query?
The Lord never forces followers. When the throngs of Jesus’ disciples turned away from Him, He did not run after them. He did not instruct His remaining followers to stop them. He did not use the miraculous powers He had recently demonstrated to block their exit, to threaten them, or otherwise coerce them into following Him. He had already set before them all the evidence they needed. He had preached the word to them. They chose to reject it. As Jesus’ question to His apostles demonstrates, they were likewise free to leave if they so chose.
Many denominationalists believe that the Holy Spirit directly compels people to obey God against their will. However, the Bible teaches no such thing. God sent the Holy Spirit, who inspired the apostles and four other men to complete God’s written revelation to man (John 14:26; 16:13; 1 Cor. 2:12-13). Once a man hears or reads that Divine message, he then has the choice whether or not to follow the Lord. A choice not to follow certainly grieves the Lord and will ultimately bring judgment (cf. Gen. 6:5-7; Matt. 24:34-39), but the Lord never forces followers.
The Lord will not compromise His message to amass or maintain numbers. The reason the large number of disciples gave for turning away from Christ was, as they put it, the message Christ was preaching “is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60). Did Jesus then offer them a message more palatable to them? No; rather, “When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you [‘cause you to stumble,’ ASV]?” (John 6:61). And when they left apparently never to return, Jesus did not run after them, saying, “Wait! Let me offer you an easier version of Christianity!”
Many churches today are not only willing but eager to compromise the Gospel if it means having larger numbers. Christ did not do such, and neither did the apostle Paul: “And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ. And when they opposed themselves, and blasphemed, he shook his raiment, and said unto them, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles” (Acts 18:5-6). Whether many or few join us in the Lord’s Cause, with the apostle Paul let us never be “ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). Christians aspire to a higher calling than being numbered among the fickle majority.
Turning away from Christ means going backward. When the disciples “walked no more” with Jesus, the Scripture also states that they “went back.” They had exerted significant efforts to find Jesus and come to Him, but whatever progress they made had been forfeited. Oftentimes preachers and church leaders will remark at the “progress” they have made by studying psychology, denominational church growth tactics, and other such tripe while abandoning God’s word. Their churches view themselves as far more “contemporary, hip,” and “relevant” than “old mossbacks” who still demand Bible, chapter, and verse preaching and a “thus saith the Lord” for what they practice.” To the Galatians Paul wrote, “Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Gal. 5:7). If a church or a child of God is no longer obeying the truth, it is impossible for him to “run well.” Peter wrote of some who had “escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ,” yet became “again entangled therein, and overcome” (2 Pet. 2:20). No cause of celebration exists when new trends or “discoveries” lead to the abandonment of the Lord and His word.
Turning away from Christ obliterates one’s hope of eternal life. As one reads Jesus’ question to His apostles, one is filled with sadness. “Will ye also go away?” Many once faithful Christians have certainly turned away from Christ; the apostles certainly could have. Yet Peter’s prompt and unwavering response reassures the Christian reader: “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68-69). While one might be tempted to follow the crowd that has turned away from Christ, the alternative is terrible to contemplate—the forfeiture of the eternal life laid up for each Christian. Friend, nothing is worth this. Let us determine never to turn away from following Jesus that Christ, the Son of God Who has the words of eternal life.