Calvinism and John 6:33?

Question
John says Jesus gave his life for the whole world and therefore Limited Atonement is incorrect. John 6:33
Answer

John 6:33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.

D.A. Carson wrote, "A text taken out of context is a pretext for a proof text; a text taken out of context is a pretext for a proof text; a text taken out of context..." [1] An example may help:

Does Jesus want you to commit suicide right now? What does the Bible say?

  • (1) "Judas hanged himself" (Matt 27:5).
  • (2) "Go and do likewise" (Luke 10:37).
  • (3) "That thou doest, do quickly" (John 13:27).

This old example is a silly illustration of verses taken out of context to prove a point - a false one. As ridiculous as the above example is, this type of improper Bible study happens all the time. John 6:33 by itself - totally out of context - could mean numerous things: (1) God has a bakery in heaven, (2) Jesus is not a human, but literal bread, (3) Jesus gave his life for every single person in the universe without exception. These are some of the false things one may hear from someone removing a verse from its context. While these ideas are senseless gibberish, denominations and theological divisions exist because of such improper Bible study. This is not to say proof texts aren't good - they are, as long as they really represent the truth in context. In rightly dividing (2 Tim 2:15) any text, we need to look at not only at the immediate and the book's overall context, but the author, audience, word meanings, historical setting, grammar, syntax, textual issues, the type of literature, the author's and the over all biblical context.

Now to John 6:33. From the context we know that the "bread" is symbolic of Jesus (John 6:35). We know salvation is in view (John 6:35). We know from other texts that Jesus came down from heaven (John 6:32, 38). So, what does the word "world" in John 6:33 mean in context? What about the word "bread" in its overall meaning in John 6?

The greater context of John 6:33 is John 6:1-71 and the remainder of the Book of John. In reality, we also need to go back to the OT and study God's gift of manna as well (Exod. 16, et. al.).

World in Context

"World" (Greek, kosmos) can mean numerous things depending upon its context: (1) the entire universe as a whole (John 1:1-3, 10b, 17:5); (2) of the earth (John 13:1; 16:33; 21:25); (3) the world system (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11); (4) the entire human race (John 1:10c); (5) of humanity minus believers (John 17:9; 15:18); (6) of Gentiles in contrast to Jews (1 John 2:2); (7) the elect only (John 3:17b, c), (8) of the non-elect (John 17:9), (9) a large group (John 12:19), (10) Jews and Gentile (John 4:42), (11) the general public (John 7:4), and (12) the elect and the original universe [including the now but not yet of the new heavens and new earth] (John 3:16).

The definitions of the term "world" do assist us in eliminating a few possibilities. From the remainder of the context, we observe that a few possibilities still exist: (4) the entire human race (John 1:10); (5) of humanity minus believers (John 17:9; 15:18); (6) of Gentiles in contrast to Jews (1 John 2:2); (7) the elect only (John 3:17).

Bread in Context

A miracle is simply a sign. A sign points to something other than itself. If you see a McDonald's sign ("Golden Arches") you do not go up to the sign and stare in awe and wonder and end your journey there. Rather, you go to where the sign points - the restaurant.

The crowds expected that the coming of the Messiah would be marked by a miracle as great as, or greater than, the giving of the manna in the desert (Exod. 16). The feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-14) in their minds was minor in comparison to the feeding of the whole people of Israel over a 40-year period with "bread from heaven." The people desired to see more "Golden Arches" ... But, Jesus pointed his audience toward the meaning of the bread from heaven. He says, "Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal" (John 6:27). Moreover, he tells them what the work of God is, "that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:29). Of course, the free gifts of faith (Eph 2:8) and repentance (2 Tim 2:24-26) come after regeneration in the biblical order of salvation. However the people were still interested in seeing more signs and reminded Jesus of Moses' manna (John 6:31). But Jesus informs his audience that "it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (John 6:32-33).

Jesus' audience misinterpreted his statements on a purely physical level, even as Nicodemus (John 3:4) and the Samaritan woman (John 4:15) had done earlier and demanded, "Sir, give us this bread always" (John 6:34). Jesus responds saying:

Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me [only these, and no others] will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me [God did not give Jesus every human being without exception; i.e. Judas, John 17:12, etc.], but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him [reminiscent of John 3:14; Num 21:9, but it was limited as some died, Num 21:6; John 3:18] should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:35-40).

Some of the Jews argued among themselves (John 6:41-42). But Jesus stopped them saying:

Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him [God doesn't draw everyone, doesn't work signs everywhere, so that "all" without exception can repent, i.e. Matt 11:20-24]. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, 'And they will all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard [Jesus often spoke in parables, so some would not hear, Matt 13:10-17] and learned from the Father comes to me - not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life [in his high priestly prayer Jesus only prayed for elect, John 17:9]. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:43-51)

The Jews thought Jesus was speaking of his literal physical body [cannibalism] (John 6:52), but Jesus corrects them saying:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood [only believers should feast on the Lord's Supper, 1 Cor 11:27-29], you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever. (John 6:53-58)

Some took offense at what Jesus taught and did not believe (John 6:63-64). This ever so brief discussion on "bread" symbolically points to Jesus and what he did for his people. Eating the bread is representative of believing (John 6:50-51). Eating bread represents Jesus' broken body and drinking represents his spilt blood (Isa 53:5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, etc.). Jesus also reminds us of the Lord's Supper (John 6:53-58). An unbeliever should not partake of the Lord's Supper. If they do so, they eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Cor 11:27-29). So, in the fuller context of John 6, John 6:33 refers to believers only.

Chiastic Structure

There are at least 50 chiasms in the Book of John. John 6:26-34 forms a chiastic structure (a writing style that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and emphasis) focusing on believing:

  • A. come here (John 6:25)
    • B. Truly, truly, I say to you . . . food that perishes . . . food that endures (John 6:26-27)
      • C. doing the works of God (John 6:28)
        • D. This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent (John 6:29)
      • C'. What work do you perform? (John 6:30-31)
    • B'. Truly, truly, I say to you ... Moses' bread [perishes] ... Father true bread [endures] (John 6:32-34)
  • A'. comes down (John 6:33-34)

So, the emphasis of the context of John 6:33 is faith ("believe"). Jesus didn't die for everyone without exception, but only for those who believe.

Limited Atonement in John

Time and space are limited, so we can't go through every passage that speaks of Limited Atonement in the Book of John. So, we will select only a few to briefly look at:

John 3:16 - see "Calvinism and John 3:16" below.

In John 6:37, 39, 40, 44, 65, we observe that Jesus came to do the will of the Father. The Father gives a specific group of people to the Son (John 6:37; cf. Eph 1:3-11), and no one can come to the Son unless the Father draws him (John 6:44, 65).

In John 10:11, 15, 29, Jesus does not lay down his life for the goats, but only for the sheep. It is for the sheep - and only for the sheep - that the Good Shepherd lays down his life. So, the design of the atonement is restricted. Jesus dies for those who have been given to him by the Father (see John 6:37); that is for the children of God, for true believers.

In Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17, he prays only for the elect only (John 17:6, 9, 20, 21, 24). Since Jesus did not intercede for the world (every person without exception), he did not die for the sins of the world.

Throughout John (John 3:16; 6:37, 39, 40, 44, 65; 10:11, 15, 29; 17:6, 9, 20, 21, 24) we see Limited Atonement. It is also the doctrine of the rest of Scripture too. Not a drop of Jesus' precious blood was wasted on those that never would believe. Christ purchased his church (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25-27); his people (Matt. 1:21); the wheat not the tares (Matt 13:24-30); the elect (Rom. 8:32-35), etc..

As The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible states:

Reformed theology affirms the doctrine of definite atonement, which is sometimes called particular redemption, effective atonement or limited atonement ("limited" not in reference to the power or value of Jesus' death, but in reference to the number of people for whom Christ purchased salvation). ...

Scripture speaks of God as having chosen for salvation a great number from the fallen human race (these are the "elect") and as having sent Christ into the world to save them (John 10:27-29; 11:51-52; Rom. 8:28-39; Eph. 1:3-14; 1 Pet. 1:20). Christ is regularly said to have died for particular groups or persons, with the clear implication that his death fully secured their salvation (John 10:15-18,27-29; Rom. 5:8-10; 8:32; Gal. 2:20; 3:13-14; 4:4-5; 1 John 4:9-10; Rev. 1:4-6; 5:9-10). Facing his suffering on the Cross, Jesus prayed only for those whom the Father had given him, not for the "world" (i.e., the rest of humanity, John 17:9, 20). Indeed, Jesus knowingly and purposely did not do mighty works in some places and as a result the people there did not believe the Gospel (Matt 11:20-24). ...

We should always interpret the less clear passages of Scripture in light of the clearer ones. Since the Book of John gives us numerous examples of Limited Atonement, John 6:33 should be translated as such too.

Conclusion

Therefore, "world" in context clearly refers to all people who believe, irrespective of their ethnic background, i.e. Gentiles as well as Jews (Rev 5:9; 7:9). In John 4:42 the Samaritan townspeople said to the woman, "we believe . . . and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world." By this they meant he was the Saviour, not only of Jews but Samaritans as well. In similar fashion here in John 6:33 Jesus says the bread that comes down from heaven gives life to the world, meaning that all who believe in him, no matter if the are Jew or Gentile (Isa 49:6; Zech 2:11; Acts 28:28; Rom 3:29-30; 10:12; Gal 3:28; Eph 3:6; Col 3:11), have eternal life. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom 1:16; cf. Jer 31:34).

References

[1] D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).