Challenging the grumbling. 60 Then many of his disciples who were listening said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” 61 Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, “Does this shock you? 62 What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
Before v.60 the dialogue was with the people in the crowds was marked by grumbling, incredulity, and quarrelling. The same range of reactions will be found among those closest to Jesus, the disciples: murmuring (v. 61), disbelief (v. 64), rejection (v. 66), confession of faith (vv. 68–69), and betrayal (vv. 64, 71). Jesus offers his very self – and yet even among the closest there are those who turn away to a former life, forsaking the very author of life.
John records that even among those who had counted themselves among believers and were following Jesus, even among the disciples, this saying was skleros, a word meaning “hard, harsh, difficult.” In this case the three primary meanings perhaps capture the range of reaction among the disciples. Looking ahead to v.66 we see the result: some disciples turn from Jesus and walk away although the “Twelve” remain (vv.67-68). The word skleros is related to the word used to describe hardness of heart elsewhere in Scripture. The word used in “murmuring” is the same used of the crowds in vv.41 and 43 – thus connecting the larger discourse to this more private dialogue.
And so Jesus challenges their doubt and their resistance to their understanding of Jesus, the ultimate meaning comprising the sign of miraculous feeding. The challenge is conditional (what if…) and is open-ended. This is not the first time in John we have seen such language as part of a challenge. Consider John 1:51, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” In both this and 6:62, the ascent of the Son of Man becomes the proving ground for the disciples’ faith. In both verses, Jesus moves the disciples’ immediate response, whether faith (1:50) or doubt (6:60), into a broader sphere.
Still, the language, typical of Johannine structure, has several ways to understand the challenge There are two principal ways: (1) if they saw him ascend, they might be prepared to accept his hard saying –everything might begin to make sense; or (2) if they saw him ascend, their difficulties and incredulity would only increase.
As O’Day  points out “Language about the ascent of the Son of Man is synonymous with language about Jesus’ return to God (e.g., 3:13; 20:17) and thus points to the entire Easter event: death, resurrection, and ascension.” Although the language refers to being “lifted up” in John 3:13, the idea of ascension is also carried in the image of Jesus being lifted up on the cross. If the ‘disciples’ who grumbled about Jesus’ hard saying about eating his flesh and drinking his blood should witness his shameful death upon the cross, they would be scandalized still further.
Verse 62 also evokes the pre-existence of the Son of Man (cf. 1:1–2, 18; 8:58) and Jesus’ heavenly descent (3:13; 6:38, 51). This verse suggests that the offense of Jesus’ teaching must be contextualized in the sweep of his life, from incarnation to crucifixion and resurrection. The challenge of v.62 is intentionally open-ended, because each person will make his or her own decision about the significance of this pattern of events.
John 6:60 many: Most instances of the word ‘disciples’ as speaking of the Twelve. There are a number of places where ‘disciples’ refers to the wider group (4:1; 7:3; 8:31; 9:28; 19:38). It was “many” of this wider group who found Jesus’ teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood to be a “hard.” This group did not include the Twelve, as 6:66–67 makes clear. this saying is hard: The Greek skleros has the meaning “hard, harsh, difficult.” It does mean intellectually challenging, but rather it is offensive. It is part of the same word group that appears in the biblical “hard of heart.” [EDNT 3:254] Used elsewhere in OT and NT alike, the connotation is often unbelief. accept: The Greek akouein means “hear, come to know, obey.” The saying is not hard to understand; it is difficult to accept into the lives.
John 6:61 murmuring: The Greek gongyzousin is the same as used in vv.41 and 43. It is used consistently in the LXX to render Hebrew lûn. In Exodus 15–17 and Numbers 14–17 this refers to the complaints of the Israelites on their desert wandering. [EDNT 1:256]
John 6:62 Son of Man ascending: The sentence seems unfinished and is a bit obscure. Likely there is a reference to vv.49–51. Jesus claims to be the bread that comes down from heaven (v.50); this claim provokes incredulity (v.60); and so Jesus is pictured as asking what his disciples will say when he goes up to heaven.
- Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995). 337-46
- Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 609-13
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) –
- Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm