John 10:1-10

Jesus Fulfils and Reinterprets the Jewish Festivals - 4

The Feast of Dedication

Commentators discuss whether the Discourse that follows should be seen as commenting on the preceding incident (Jesus’ giving sight to the blind man), or as reflecting on issues of leadership and responsibility suggested by the approaching Feast of the Dedication of the Temple (and the associated issue of the legitimacy of the chief priests who managed the Temple). The final editor obviously placed it in its present context, and probably did not see any need to anchor it more clearly.

The relevance of the passage to the healing of the blind man would become clear at the end of the passage [10:21]. In that incident, Jesus had revealed himself as:

  • the way to fullness of life and salvation for the blind man, 
  • the one who lovingly cared for him when he had been condemned and marginalised by society, 
  • and who came to be truly recognised and known by the ones he cared for.

All three topics would be covered in what follows.

The themes would certainly be pertinent to the broader question, soon to be examined, of the exercise of responsibility within society. 

Celebrating the Feast of Dedication

The Feast of Dedication took place during winter in the month of December. Unlike the other major Jewish liturgical festivals, the Feast did not hark back to Israel’s origins. About two hundred years beforehand, the Hellenistic king, Antiochus Epiphanes, had placed an altar to Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem. The High Priests of the time had gone along with his blasphemous action. The festival celebrated the dedication of the restored temple during the time of the Maccabees (165 BC).

As well as celebrating a purified temple, the festival celebrated a restored priesthood (though various groupings of the people did not accept the legitimacy of the new priestly line). Associated with the institution of priesthood was the broader question of leadership.

The festival was celebrated with the lighting of lamps and much rejoicing, both in Jerusalem itself, as well as in the Diaspora.

Liturgical Readings. Among the scriptural passages read in the liturgies of the festival were passages about God as the true Shepherd of Israel. God’s shepherding was seen against the background of the destructive shepherding of the earlier unfaithful kings and priests in Israel’s long history, particularly personified in the High Priests who had connived with the blasphemous action of Antiochus.

In a reading chosen from Ezekiel, after condemning the exploitative activities of false leaders, the prophet had presented the wonderful image of God as Shepherd:

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel
who have been feeding yourselves!
Should not shepherds feed the sheep?
You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; 
but you do not feed the sheep. 
You have not strengthened the weak,
you have not healed the sick, 
you have not bound up the injured,
you have not brought back the strayed, 
you have not sought the lost, 
but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 
So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd… 
For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep,
and will seek them out. 
As shepherds seek out their flocks
when they are among their scattered sheep, 
so I will seek out my sheep... 
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, 
and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. 
I will seek the lost,
and I will bring back the strayed, 
and I will bind up the injured,
and I will strengthen the weak, 
but the fat and the strong I will destroy.
I will feed them with justice. [Ezekiel 34:2-4, 11-16]

Leadership as Service

John 10:1-6     Caring for the Sheep

The text presented Jesus’ comments without further introduction.

1 “I assure you, the person who does not come into the sheep enclosure through the gate
but gets in from elsewhere is a thief and a rustler. 
2 The one who comes in through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 
3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him
and the sheep recognise his voice.  
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
4 When he gets them all out,
he goes in front of them
and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.
5 They do not follow anyone else,
in fact they get away from him
because they do not recognise the voice of strangers.”
6 Jesus told them this metaphor;
but they did not pick up what he was telling them. 

The text spoke not only of shepherd and sheep, but also of gate and gatekeeper, as well as of thieves, rustlers and strangers. Jesus’ audience was not specifically stipulated, but his comments were relevant to all who were listening (including the later members of the Beloved Disciple’s community). Not surprisingly, Jesus’ listeners did not grasp the relevance of the comment or its meaning.

Jesus as the Gate

7 So Jesus said to them again, “I tell you clearly,
I am the gate for the sheep.  
8 All those who came before me are thieves and rustlers;
but the sheep did not listen to them.  
9 I am the gate.  
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will move about freely and will find pasture. 
10 The thief comes only to steal, to kill and to destroy.  
I have come so that they may have life and have it in abundance.

The text was clearly about Jesus and his role. The Christian imagination has not warmed, however, to the image of Jesus as gate of the sheepfold. Yet it is a powerful image that Jesus used to illustrate his saving role. I am the gate is to be listed alongside the better known images of Jesus as shepherd, bread of life, living water and light of the world. It was precisely as imaged by the term gate of the sheepfold that Jesus identified himself as having come that they may have life, and have it in abundance. By speaking of himself as gate, Jesus also identified himself as the necessary way of entry to salvation and abundant life. (Later in the narrative, Jesus would explicitly lay claim to being the way, the truth and the life, and stating that no one comes to the Father except through me [14:6].)

The issue of saving had been introduced briefly early in the narrative [3:17; 4:21; 5:34], and would occur once more [12:47], without much indication of meaning other than as the alternative to future condemnation or judgment. Here, Jesus spoke of salvation as a present experience, enabling the enjoyment of life and a general sense of security and freedom – salvation from the alternative experience of the futility, meaninglessness, oppression and violence of the world. Jesus contrasted his life-giving purpose to that of the thieves and rustlers who had come before him. The context would seem to suggest that Jesus was referring to the current leaders – though he may also have had in mind the high-priestly leaders of recent decades.

Next >> John 10:11-21