My Sheep Listen

Easter 4C

John 10: 22 30

Introduction

For some weeks we have been following the events during the 7 days leading up to Jesus' death and resurrection. In a few weeks we will pick up the chronological sequence again as we prepare for Ascension and Pentecost.

For two weeks, however, we pause and reflect on our Lord's teaching about those who follow him as his disciples: that is, we take time to reflect on the teaching given during his active ministry and recorded for the Church to study prayerfully until his Return.

In our reading for this week (officially John 10: 27 — 30) we are going to reflect briefly also on the five preceding verses to help get the picture more fully. But before that it will help us to remember some important (and wonderful) things our Lord said, as recorded earlier in chapter 10:-

  • He talked about our entering his sheepfold and staying in his care.
  • He said (to his disciples):

I am the gate for the sheep.

I am the good shepherd.

I know my sheep, and they know me.

You can't talk like that without your opponents eventually hearing about it. Our Lord was soon to face the consequences of sharing this sort of knowledge with his listeners.

Notes on Our Text

Verse 22

"It was at Jerusalem, the feast of the Dedication, and it was winter".

This festival was not one of the 3 original festivals dating from the time of the Exodus (Leviticus 23). It was established only in B.C. 165 when the Machabees won back and rededicated the Temple, profaned and desecrated by the ruthless Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Mac. 4: 36 — 59). We can imagine the excitement of God's people who had, under that regime, been put to death for having any portion of Scripture in their possession.

For those less familiar with the description of this Dedication, we include a portion of what some call the Apocrapha, which describes the Festival the Gospel of John refers to (1 Maccabees 4: 52 — 59. R.S.V.)

52 Early in the morning on the twenty-five day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, 53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering, which they had built. 54 At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 55 All the people fell on their faces and worshipped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise.  57 They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and furnished them with doors. 58 There was very great gladness among the people, and the reproach of the Gentiles was removed. 59 Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.  

It was not obligatory to attend the festival at Jerusalem. It was therefore celebrated widely in Jewish homes. It became known also, therefore as the Feast of Lights, because of the lighting of lamps and candles in Jewish homes. Today it is generally referred to as Hanukkah (approx 10 — 17 December each year).

There is no doubt that St John had included this great celebration in his account of the Gospel since it was understood, as with other feasts, to be fulfilled in Jesus the Son of God. As with many small details in this Gospel account, they are often very significant.

Verse 23

We note "it was winter. And Jesus walked in the Temple in Solomon's Porch." This porch was in fact a covered cloister forming the Eastern boundary of the Temple. Because of the cold, our Lord walked along the covered porches as he taught his disciples, and those who gathered out of interest.

Verse 24

Now that Jesus was acclaimed publicly all throughout Judea, the Jewish leaders thought the time opportune to have a definite declaration from him. Never in any Jewish setting had he publicly and explicitly declared himself to be the Messiah. However his opponents never gave up trying to get some material statement or action which they could bring up in their own Council, or if need be before the Roman Governor. They had been waiting their opportunity — now they had it. The Jewish authorities therefore came "round about him", that is, they encircled him. They closed in on him so that he was cut off from his disciples. Clearly this was designed to intimidate him and add pressure to their demands for answers.

"How long will you keep us in suspense?

If you are the Christ (Messiah), tell us plainly."

Verse 25

Jesus is quick to retort: "I did tell you, but you do not believe". He thus implies — "What do you think I've been doing all this time? Although my actions and language have actually been very restrained, nevertheless if you had been willing to see and hear they were shouting the truth at you".

Then comes an essential ingredient in our Lord's teaching that he had chosen to demonstrate long before it needed to be spelled out: "The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me."

In all of Jesus' teaching and miracles to date he had been extremely careful to assure his observers that in nothing whatsoever did he speak, or judge, or witness, or act apart from his Father. There was the most perfect oneness between them. It is crucial for us to note this.

Thus, in fact, Jesus had gone much further than simply telling them that he was the Christ. He had honoured them with a conception, a revelation of the Christ infinitely beyond (and so contrary to) their low, underdeveloped expectations.

Jesus implies, therefore, "You have not just my unsupported word, but works in number and power such as no one before me has done. Haven't you heard the people commenting: 'When Christ comes, will he do more than this man has done?'"

Verse 27

Jesus returned to what he had been saying in verses 4 and 14. "My sheep listen to my voice". He is, of course, talking about his disciples, not sheep. Thus he is emphasing that his followers listen in every way possible, at every opportunity, not for the sound of his voice, but to what he is saying to them. His followers therefore are clearly identifiable as constantly choosing to listen to him, to keep their focus on what he is saying to them. There is therefore a choice, which must be made to remain attuned to the Word of God and to reject all else; or be forever confused and disabled. Jesus declares that those who commit themselves to this kind of listening will indeed hear what he is truly saying; will be able to recognise such understanding as coming from him, and will follow him.

Despite a difficult path, they will be enabled to follow him. How will this become a reality? Because Jesus said, "I know them," meaning I know each one intimately. The construction suggests that those who follow him can have a similar knowledge of him. This is the empowerment he promises.

Verse 28

Jesus says of his sheep, "I give them eternal life." He has already been teaching that he came to bring humanity "life to the full", and "abundant life". Now he goes a step further and comes out into the open with a declaration that the life he imparts is eternal, implying it is his own to give. Despite all appearances he adds, "they shall never perish; no one can (meaning will be able to) snatch them out of my hand".

It is obvious to his listeners that he is referring to one who would try and snatch; i.e. delude, trick, mislead. It is no less than the Good Shepherd who knows his flock intimately, and who gives his life for them, who will keep them secure.

Verse 29

Jesus repeats and enlarges the promise; "My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand."

Consistently, Jesus builds into his teaching the understanding that everything he does is done in union with the Father. Again he echoes this sublime truth which surfaced in verse 25.

What is the lesson which the sheep should learn here from the True Shepherd? Not continually to boast of security, but unceasingly to commend themselves to God in such words as:

"Into your hands I commend my spirit, 

for you have redeemed me, O, Lord God of truth".

Verse 30

Our Lord completes this section of this teaching, still cornered by the authorities who were tracking his progress, with a beautiful proclamation:

"I and the Father are one".

Battles have been fought over the differences in the way this is interpreted. Much scholarship, even in modern times, remains in harmony with St Augustine's maxim: "It is invariably found in Scripture that things called 'one' are things of the same nature."

Sadler (1898) commented on verse 30 in this way:

"This, no doubt, primarily means, One in the exercise of Almighty power in the protection of the sheep, and therefore One in the possession of what must be the substratum of that Almighty power, One in the Divine Substance. The Oneness of the Son with the Father in will, in action, in knowledge, in judgement, in the terms in which the Lord asserts this Oneness throughout this Gospel, can only arise from Oneness in Divine Essence, and cannot be even thought of apart from such Oneness of Essence: and so this is the most absolute assertion on the part of our Lord of Oneness with His Father in the Trinity, which can be conceived."

Conclusion

Throughout this passage (and of course, beyond it) Jesus strives to demonstrate that he is totally obedient to the Father's will. In this way he is one with the Father, fully united in mind and purpose.

Jesus is therefore the perfect model of one who listens and obeys. Those disciples who are willing to reflect this same listening and obedience in their lives are thereby brought into that intimacy between Father and Son who love to share it with them.

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