John 10:22-29


The Messiah as Shepherd

John 10:22-24     Teaching in the Temple

22 It was the Dedication festival in Jerusalem;
and it was winter.  
23 Jesus was walking about in the temple,
in the colonnade of Solomon.

The explicit mention of the festival would seem to separate what would follow from the earlier discourse. Yet, since the same themes continue to be examined, it seems more appropriate to approach it as a continuation of the discourse.

It was winter and cold. Jesus sheltered from the cold winds blowing in from the desert areas to the East by choosing to walk along the inner side of the Eastern wall in the colonnade of Solomon

24 So the Jews surrounded him and said,
“How long do you keep us in suspense?

The question could equally be translated: How long will you keep annoying us? Certainly, this group of Jews was hostile. Their interrogation effectively would place Jesus on trial, and, in anticipation of their accusation of Jesus before Pilate, would unofficially condemn him for calling himself Son of God [19:7].

Jesus 10:24-29     Jesus as Messiah

If you are the Christ, tell us openly.”

Earlier controversies had raised the issue of Jesus’ role as Christ/Messiah, but the question had never been put so plainly to him. Their challenge that he answer openly may have referred to his recent use of the figure of speech when he portrayed himself as shepherd [10.6].

The question of Christ/Messiah/King was occasioned by its connection to the celebration of the festival. Before the Exile, leadership – shepherding – was the prerogative of both King and High Priest. Rededication of the Temple raised the question, not only of worthy worship and priesthood, but also of political leadership. In Judea, under Roman occupation, the practical day-to-day governing of the people was the responsibility of the Sanhedrin, a body composed of leading priestly families, other aristocrats, scribes and some Pharisees.


Messianic expectations

The question arose from the fact that, in earlier Israelite history, the role of king had often been envisaged in terms of shepherding. King David, particularly, who had been a shepherd before being anointed king, was lovingly regarded as the greatest Shepherd-King. After the Babylonian exile, the Davidic monarchy was not re-established. But, taking their cue from a number of prophecies and psalms, different groupings in Israel looked forward to a future king who would shepherd his people after the model of David. This future king carried the Jewish title Christ/Messiah. Monarchy was re-established for a time under the Maccabees. More recently, the line had been superseded by the Herodian dynasty. None of these experiences of kingship met the people’s longings. Under the Roman occupation, a few individuals had taken to themselves the title Christ/Messiah, only to be crushed by Rome’s military might. Expectations of the Christ/Messiah stretched from that of a political king, who would cast off Roman rule, to a more spiritualised and universal figure.

25 Jesus answered them, “I do tell you,
and you do not believe.

Jesus had not in fact told them that he was the Christ/Messiah. What he had told them was that he had been sent by God, and that he and God were one [7.28-29]. As he had done in the early controversy that had ensued after he had healed a crippled man on the Sabbath, Jesus would refer again, in the course of this discussion, to the various witnesses to his identity and his role: his works, the Father, the Scriptures and John the Baptist [5:31-39; 8:14-18].

Jesus was consistently ambivalent about accepting the title Christ/Messiah, because he knew his role to be immeasurably greater than people could have understood by their use of the title. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus would re-define the whole concept of Christ/Messiah. Only in that light was he comfortable to accept the title. Indeed, writing many years later, the Beloved Disciple was able to maintain that the whole purpose behind his Gospel was that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah), the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name [20:31].

The deeds that I do in my Father’s name,
these testify to me.
26 But you do not believe me
because you are not sheep of mine.
27 My sheep listen to my voice.

Jesus had accepted the title, but realised that his claim would be credible only to those who were attuned to the ways of God and to the intuitions of their own hearts, who belonged to his sheep [verse 14]. The reference to sheep connected this passage to the earlier discussion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

I know them,
and they follow me. 
28 I give them eternal life,
and to eternity they will not perish,

In sharp contrast to his questioners were those disciples who did follow, who did belong, and who allowed his word to challenge, to enter and to remain in them. Already they experienced eternal life, and their future was assured: to eternity they will not perish.  Jesus’ promise of eternal life would soon be illustrated by the sign of the physical resuscitation of the four-days-dead Lazarus [11:43-44].

nor will anyone snatch them from my hand.
29 What the Father has given me is greater than all else.  
And no one can snatch anything from my Father's hand.

Safe in the hand of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the disciples were safe in the Father’s hand, the original shepherd of Israel [Ezekiel 34:15]. Jesus had given a similar assurance in the discourse on the bread of life [6:37, 39].

The original Greek of verse 29 is ambiguous. As translated here, what my Father has given me may, perhaps, refer to eternal life which Jesus was charged to dispense; or it may refer to the members of the flock. A different, and equally accurate, translation would read: “My Father, who has given them (the sheep of the one flock) to me, is greater than all else”.  The difference is not crucial to the argument.

Held in the Father's hand

The impossibility of those belonging to Jesus being "snatched from his hand" or, consequently, from "the hand of his Father", would be referred to again on the night of the resurrection. Then Jesus would say to the disciples whom he was sending to carry on his work across history, "Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven. Those whom you keep hold of are held" [20.23]. The use of the passive voice was the common Semitic way of referring to the action of God – "no one can snatch anything from my Father’s hand".

Next >> John 10:30-42