John 6:68-69 — “Simon Peter answered him, Lord to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and know that Thou art the Holy One of God.”
The first impression made on us by this response of Peter’s to our Lord’s pathetic appeal, “Surely ye too will not wish to go?” is the nobility of the confession which it contains. We are not surprised to find one of the commentators, therefore, speaking of it as “this immortal reply”; nor are we surprised that it is commonly treated by commentators and expounders alike from this point of view. Thus, for instance, one expounder develops it as a “serious answer” to our Lord’s “searching inquiry”; and finds in it, (1) a “reverential address”— “Lord”; (2) a significant inquiry,” which is only a “strong way of asserting not alone that our Lord’s disciples intended to adhere to Him, but that they reckoned Him the only Teacher, Messiah, Saviour, to whom they could adhere”; (3) a “confidant avowal”— viz., that He had the words of eternal life; and (4) a “simple confession,” that they saw in Him none other than “the Holy One of God,”—God’s own incarnate Son.
Now, we should certainly be sorry to miss this side of the matter. Surely, the verse does contain, fundamentally, a confession of Peter’s and through him of the apostles’ faith; and assuredly this confession is, in contrast with the thought of Jesus entertained by the crowds which had been flocking to Him, a very noble confession, which explains why the twelve cleaved to Him in the midst of the general defection that had now set in. At bottom, this confession does mean that these men were seeking in Jesus satisfaction for spiritual and not carnal wants; and that they, therefore, understood Him incomparably better than the crowds of carnal men which had hitherto surrounded Him; and that, finding satisfaction in Him for their spiritual needs, they could not leave Him as the others left Him, however puzzlingly He spoke, but could not fail to recognize in Him the very consecrated messenger from God whom their hearts craved.
To mean this was, at that time and in those circumstances, to mean almost incredibly much. But it is not to mean everything. There is another side to the declaration, and this other side is obviously the side that was in John’s mind when he recorded it. For clearly he does not put it forward as a supreme confession, marking a complete appreciation of Jesus’ person and claims, and standing out, therefore, in startling and instructive contrast with the unbelief of others, to the manifestation of which the whole preceding chapter is consecrated—as exhibiting in a word the immense contrast of the fullness of the apostles’ faith and appreciation with the slowness or rather grossness of heart of the lesser followers of Christ. On the contrary, he presents it evidently as standing in contrast, indeed, with the unbelief and incapacity to believe of the others, and therefore marking out the apostles as Christ’s especially faithful followers; but as, nevertheless, exhibiting more fully the great crisis that had come into our Lord’s life by showing how, even among His closest companions, there existed no full appreciation of Him in His work and claims. When Jesus, out of the midst of the scenes that lay about Him, turned to this innermost circle of His followers with the sorrowful inquiry: “Surely ye too will not go away!”—Oh, the pathos of it!— He obtained no doubt a reassurance. No, they would cleave to Him. And this reassurance must have been a balm to His wounded human spirit. But the reassurance He obtained was so little to His mind, that He felt it necessary to meet it with a rebuke: “Was it not I that chose you—the twelve; and of you, one is diabolical!” This very confession was an element, thus, in the crisis through which He was passing, the manifestation of how little even those who were nearest to Him really understood Him or were ready to carry on His work. Surely it will not be without its lessons to us to seek, without derogating from the essential nobility of the confession, to trace out also the elements of incompleteness that enter into it, and that make it less than what a confession of Christ ought to be.