At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So 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.” 25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”
Translation: Then it happened at the dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter. And Jesus was walking around in the Temple in the portico of Solomon. Then the Judeans surrounded him and said to him, "Until when will you lift up our life? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly." Jesus answered them, "I told you and you did not trust. The works which I do in the name of my Father, these things witness concerning me. But you do not trust because you are not of my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give to them life eternal, and they will surely not perish into the eternal, and no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, the one who has given to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one."
Background and situation: The "festival of the Dedication" refers to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. The Greek enkainia, which translates the Hebrew Hanukkah, simply means "renewal." The word had been used originally to refer to other dedications, including those of both the first and second Temple (1 Kgs 8:63, Ezra 6:16) which caused Ray Brown to note that "the term is somewhat evocative of the consecration of all the houses of God in Israel's history." (p. 402) This mention of Hanukkah is the only one in the entire Bible.
The "renewal" ceremony celebrates the victory of Judas Maccabeus and his forces against the Seleucid leader, Antiochus, in 164 B.C. Seleucus, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty, had been one of Alexander's generals. The eastern portion of the Alexandrian empire went to him after the death of Alexander. Headquartered in Babylonia, Seleucus expanded his empire into modern day Turkey and Syria.
The Seleucids had profaned the Jerusalem Temple by erecting a statue of Zeus on the altar. This incident was called the "abominable desolation" in Dan 9:27. Following the defeat of Antiochus, the Maccabeans erected a new altar and rededicated the Temple. Hanukkah is the festival which celebrates the reconsecration of the Temple.
The situation in Jesus' time recalled that of the Maccabeans in at least one very important respect. In the time of the Maccabeans, some elements of the Jewish aristocracy and the Jerusalem priesthood had supported Antiochus. Similarly, in Jesus' time, elements of that same aristocracy and priesthood, a.k.a. the "Judeans" in the fourth gospel, had been supportive of the Romans.
"My sheep hear my voice": The fourth gospel notes that it was the winter season. This would explain Jesus' walking around in the porticos of Solomon, an exterior court of the Temple area which provided shelter from the winter wind.
Also, one might say that the season of winter reflects the "chill" between Jesus and his Judean interlocutors. In the fourth gospel, the "Judeans" are the Jerusalem-area social and religious aristocracy in opposition to Jesus. In this week's lection, these Judeans "surround" (kukloo) Jesus and interrogate him.
Their first utterance is difficult in Greek. NRSV, NIV, and NASB all have: "How long will you keep us in suspense?" KJV has: "How long dost thou make us to doubt?"
Frankly, none of these even appear to be very close. The Greek phrase is: eos pote ten psychen hamon aireis, which, literally, would be translated, "Until when you take away our lives?" Ray Brown notes that the use of this expression to mean "suspense" is not well attested in Greek literature and hints that the phrase should indeed be rendered literally: "Jesus lays down his own life for those who follow him (10:11,15), (and) also provokes judgment and thus takes away the life of those who reject him (11:48)."
The Judeans then ask, "If you are the Christ (Messiah), tell us plainly." To this point in the fourth gospel, Jesus has spoken plainly of his identity as Messiah only to the Samaritan woman in chapter four. He has, however, just spoken of himself as the "good shepherd" and shepherd imagery was quite often used in reference to the Messiah. (The archetypal "messiah" figure is David, who had been a shepherd.)
That said, in both the synoptics and the fourth gospel, Jesus tended to avoid too close an identification as Messiah. In the world of that time, the Messiah was commonly thought to be a political figure, even somewhat military, who would defeat Israel's enemies and usher in a great Golden Age of prosperity. He would not be that.
Further, calling yourself the "Messiah" was blasphemous, the penalty for which was stoning. Wes Howard-Brook explains the stakes involved: "Jesus' 'confession' that he considers himself the Christ would be enough to justify his death." Jesus responds to the Judeans:
"I told you and you did not trust. The works which I do in the name of my Father, these things witness concerning me. But you do not trust because you are not of my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
"I told you and you did not trust." To this point, Jesus has actually told the Judeans precious little. Instead, he points to the "works" which he has done. These "witness" to him. "Witness"--marturei--is an important concept in the fourth gospel. The word is used 33 times in the fourth gospel as opposed to once each in Matthew and Luke and none at all in Mark.
Jesus then returns to the theme of sheep. Just prior to our reading, Jesus had told a parable of the shepherd (10:1-10) and spoken of himself as the "good shepherd" (10:11). In the parable, Jesus had contrasted the shepherd on the one hand with "thieves and bandits" on the other. The sheep hear the shepherd's voice. He calls them by name, He leads them out (10:3) They follow because they know his voice (10:4).
The sheep, however, will not follow a stranger because they "do not know the voice of strangers" (10:5). Nor do the sheep listen to "thieves and bandits" (10:8) who come "only to steal and kill and destroy."
Then, he switches to comparing the "good shepherd" (himself) with the "hired hands" who don't really care about the sheep (10:13). The Judeans surrounding Jesus are thus lumped with thieves, bandits, and hired hands--those who do not hear his voice or care about his sheep, and, moreover, are trying to kill him rather than trust him.
"And I give to them life eternal, and they will surely not perish into the eternal, and no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, the one who has given to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one."
Jesus gives his sheep eternal life. The thief steals (10:10), and the wolf "snatches" the sheep (10:12), but no one can "snatch" Jesus' sheep from his hand. This is because of his close identification with the Father who, likewise, does not allow his sheep to be "snatched" (10:29).
This concept is thoroughly Johannine. All through the fourth gospel, Jesus identifies closely with the Father and the Father with him--indeed, "I and the Father are one" (10:30). The pattern of this relationship is mirrored in the close identification between Jesus and his followers. All through the fourth gospel, the same "mutual indwelling" between the Father and Jesus is also to be reflected in the "mutual indwelling"--the intimacy and affection--between Jesus and his community.
Sheep as archetype: Psychologically, "sheep" refers to that aspect of a person that instinctively is able to hear the shepherd's voice, and separate the truth from falsehood. The early church father, Origen, said that sheep represent our irrational and instinctual nature.
This aspect of our psyche needs guidance, but it also has the ability to separate the "true shepherd" from the false one. It is spiritually and psychologically attentive to the True Voice that it can trust and follow.
At the same time, there are others--"thieves and bandits"--who call us to turn over our lives to them. (Our world has no shortage of these!) This is seductive because it offers to spare us from the hard work of healthy ego development. Why work on your psychological independence when you can turn the job over to someone else?
Those who do so can no longer hear the shepherd's voice. They are following their own "hired hand," i.e. they have subcontracted out the important psychological business of their own maturity.
The sheep, however, not only hear the true shepherd's voice, but they also follow as the true shepherd leads the way into eternal life in the future, and abundant life--and mature psychology--right now.
Image: My sheep follow my voice, Tabitha Seaton