In the sixth chapter of John, the apostles describes what I think was a turning point in the work of Jesus on this earth. He was possibly at his height of popularity, working in around the Sea of Galilee, having just demonstrated his power in amazing fashion, feeding 5,000 men with only five loaves and two fish. Including women and children, that must have made the crowd well in excess of 10,000 people.
The crowds were so enamored with Jesus, his teaching and his power that they were ready to crown him king — whether he wanted it or not. Jesus further impresses his disciples by walking through stormy waters out to their boat.
And then, the difficulty of teaching spiritual things to materially minded people came crashing down.
So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 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.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” — John 6:24-31
When “miraculous” isn’t good enough
Can you imagine doing a sign of that magnitude, only to be told “that’s not enough?” The people believed in Jesus enough to follow him around, listen to his speeches and eat the food that he had provided. But when it came to truly embracing him as the Messiah, it must have seemed like nothing was ever good enough.
After a heated exchange with some of the people, even some of his disciples began to question Jesus. “This is a hard saying,” they said. “Who can listen to it?”
That statement didn’t come from the Jews who had followed him from town to town after being fed. That was his disciples — people who had chosen to follow Jesus and actively work in his ministry. Jesus observed that some of them still didn’t believe, after all they’d seen. And they turned and left.
One can only imagine the tone in Jesus face as he turned to his disciples, and asked, “Do you want to go away as well?”
For all his faults, Peter had just the right response: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
I can only imagine how much Jesus needed to hear that.
Jesus dealt with daily discouragement
The reality of Jesus’ mission must have weighed on him heavily. he is described in Isaiah prophetically as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Jesus was the messenger trying to get 12 men to focus on spiritual matters and a deeper understanding of the kingdom of Heaven, only to constantly be dragged back into arguments about “who will be the greatest,” or “why didn’t we bring any bread with us?”
How disheartening must it have been to face your most difficult trial, praying in anguish in the middle of the night for the strength to do what needs to be done. Then to return and find your closest friends sleeping.
Maybe they were simply exhausted. Maybe after all the times you had warned them about your upcoming betrayal and death, they still didn’t really share the same urgency.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” — Mat 26:36-41
When you’re trying to warn a close friend about a danger in their life, and they just don’t see it no matter how clearly and kindly you communicate, at some point, isn’t it tempting to simply stop trying? Or when you’re talking to a friend about something that’s causing you real pain and sorrow, and the friend just shrugs and says “it’ll all work out,” how does that affect us? How many times must Jesus have been tempted to throw his hands up in the air and say “that’s enough?”
And yet he didn’t.
Why didn’t Jesus give in and give up?
Jesus made a remarkable statement to Peter before his betrayal:
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” — Luke 22:31-32
Jesus knew that Peter was going to fail, despite all his protests. But that didn’t matter; what mattered was how Peter would respond to that failure, and Jesus believed it would ultimately make him stronger and drive him to be a great servant of God.
How did Jesus overcome discouragement? Ultimately, he had faith in the men he chose. He knew the disciples weren’t perfect, but he also saw what they could be, and he never game up a real hope for them to realize that potential. Jesus overcame discouragement through faith in his disciples.
If Jesus could overcome, so can we!
As we read the gospel accounts, we continually see Jesus’ example of patience in the face of continued disappointments, and we see the determination he had to continue to love and encourage those around him, even when it didn’t seem like it was working. And we have confidence that he shows that same patience with you and me, even when we don’t always get it right in our own lives (Hebrews 10:22-23).
His ultimate patience in the face of his audience’s inability to understand or accept his teachings, his willingness to continue correcting his disciples who continued displaying spiritual immaturity right up until the night he was arrested – those are the ways in which we see how Jesus is patient with us every day when we stumble.
Does that motivate us to keep trying? It should!
So how do we overcome discouragement in our own lives and service to God? We do it by placing faith in one who is faithful – the one who anticipated us long before we ever came into this life, by saying “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
He is the Faithful Witness (Revelation 1:5). And he believed enough in us to die for us. Let’s not let discouragement keep us from the work he has given us to accomplish.