Thought for the day
The cultural dismissal of faith as illusory consolation or opium has left its mark on us all. Is it all projection? Has God truly spoken and revealed God’s self? In Christian faith, our response is a resounding yes and, while we should be wary of facile solace, at the same time we should not deny ourselves the good and wholesome reassurance of faith. After all, one of the most repeated phrases throughout the Bible is “Do not the afraid” (though not in John, curiously). There are grounds for fear; but we, of all people, should not be overwhelmed by the negative.
Lord Jesus, risen from the dead, guide us to listen deeply to your voice, your word, that we may know you and, that knowing you, we may enjoy life in abundance, now and into eternity with you. Amen.
John 10:22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”
This reading (vv. 27-30) may very well be shortest Gospel reading on any Sunday. Nevertheless, it is deeply resonant, especially when read in the light of the same words and images elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel. As a result, it repays close and careful reading.
The rather controversial setting is apparent from the introductory verses, added here to give the context. This is not unimportant because the controversy over the identity of Jesus leads to his death, precisely as the shepherd who lays down life for the sheep. V. 30 is a key, therefore.
Kind of writing
The passage comes from a new section in the Gospel. Jesus is in Jerusalem for the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), which occurs in late November or in December. The imagery of shepherd, however, takes us back to the previous Good Shepherd discourse from 10:1ff. and should be read in light of that. The question asked in v. 24 is the core question of the whole Gospel: who is Jesus. The answer given in v. 30 is, in this Gospel, the cause of Jesus’ death.
Old Testament background
The first generation of believers used the Hebrew Bible to explore what had happened in Jesus, especially Isaiah and the Psalms. (i) “Daughters of Jerusalem” is an expression found only in the Songs of Songs of Songs (1:5; 2:7; 3:5, 10; 5:8, 16; 8:4). This implied symbolism of the bridegroom is found also in John’s gospel, where the expression “aloes and myrrh” also comes from the Song of Songs. Compare Lk 5:34-35; 12:36 and 14:8. (ii) Numbered among the transgressors comes from Is 53:12; casting lots comes from Ps 22:18; the sour wine comes from Ps 69:21; scoffing comes from Ps 22:6; “chosen one” comes from the Davidic Ps 89:3 and Jesus’ final prayer comes from Ps 31:5.
New Testament foreground
The Fourth Gospel often builds its distinctive reflections on foundations taken from the Synoptic tradition. This is the case here.
(i) As he went ashore, Jesus saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)
(ii) ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” (Matt 2:6)
(iii) So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:3–7)
(iv) “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:11–18)
(v) When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. (John 21:15–17)
The life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. (1 Cor 5:7)
Verses 22-23 The feast of Dedication governs the rest of John 10. After the destruction of the Temple, all Jewish traditions, including the Nazarene sect, wondered about the place of encounter with God. Christians did not locate it in a place but in a person. See John 4:23.
Verse 24 This question is both odd and typical. It is odd in John’s Gospel because throughout Jesus has been open about his identity. Typical because Jesus is the total focus of this Gospel.
Verses 25-26 This is markedly robust and reflects conflicts at the time of writing between the Johannine community and the synagogue “across the road.” To believe is huge in this Gospel: the verb occurs no fewer that ninety-eight times.
Verse 27 The Good Shepherd is speaking. Voice: When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). Jesus said to her, “Mary!” (John 20:16). Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). “Follow” takes us back to the earliest call of Jesus in the Gospels (John 1:37–38, 40, 43), echoed in John 21: “After this he said to him, ‘Follow me’” (John 21:19).
Verse 28 In the Fourth Gospel, eternal life does not mean only or even primarily life after death. It means instead that quality of authentic life, which the believer already has now through faith in Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16). Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life (John 5:24). Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. (John 6:47). And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3). The followers of Jesus are protected: While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. (John 17:12)
Verse 29 Given: Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me (John 17:7–8). And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God …(John 13:2–4).
Verse 30 That oneness between the Father and the Son is offered to all believers as well: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20–24)
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus tells us that we can rely on his relationship with us. Think of the relationships you have in which you feel safe and secure because there is mutual understanding and the relationship has stood the test of time.
2. Jesus says that the disciple is one who listens. What is your experience of listening to the word of God in the Scriptures? To what other voices have you listened and found guidance?
3. The faithful disciple is also one who follows the path of love that Jesus preached and practiced. Although it may be difficult at times, it is in following it we find life. Where have you had the experience of listening, responding, loving, and finding life?
Safe in your hand, O God, is the flock you shepherd through Jesus your Son. Lead us always to the living waters where you promise respite and refreshment, that we may be counted among those who know and follow you. We ask this through Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, who lies and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit God for ever and ever. Amen.