Commentary on John 10:22-30
Throughout John’s Gospel, responses to Jesus vary widely.
This is the case once more in chapter 10. Jesus has been in Jerusalem since his arrival for the Festival of Booths in chapter seven (7:10), teaching regularly in the temple complex. His teaching evokes much discussion concerning his identity, origins, and authority, and results in a division among the people. Some believe that he is the Messiah, and others believe that he is demon-possessed, or worse, a blasphemer who deserves to die (7:40-44; 8:48, 59).
After the first part of Jesus’ good shepherd discourse in John 10, there is a similar divided response: “Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’” (10:19-21)
It is not clear how much time has passed between that discussion and the discourse that begins at John 10:22, which takes place at the time of the festival of the Dedication (Hanukkah). Once again Jesus is at the temple complex, this time in the portico of Solomon (10:23). Some Jews gather around him and ask Jesus to put an end to the debate concerning his identity once and for all: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (10:24).
The problem, of course, is that regardless of what Jesus says or does, the debate does not end. Jesus responds that he has already told them, and that the works he has done in his Father’s name testify to him, but they do not believe, because they do not belong to his sheep (10:25-26).
The words and works of Jesus are open to many interpretations. The incident of the preceding chapter makes that abundantly clear. After Jesus heals a man born blind, the Pharisees see only that Jesus has healed on a Sabbath, and that therefore he must be a sinner, while others question how a sinner can perform such signs (John 9:16). The blind man gradually comes to realize who Jesus is and, in the end, worships him as Lord (9:38). Jesus says: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39).
There is a tension between God’s initiative and human responsibility that is not resolved in John’s Gospel (or perhaps in the entire Bible!). It is only with the eyes of faith that one can see the truth concerning Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus, who hear and recognize his voice and follow him, have been given to him by the Father (10:29). Everything depends on God’s initiative. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (3:16-17). At the same time, the result of Jesus’ coming into the world is that those who do not believe are subject to judgment (3:18-19).
The preacher cannot resolve this tension. Neither can the preacher argue people into faith with convincing words. (Even Jesus could not do that!) But the preacher can declare the promise that creates and sustains faith — the promise of the Good Shepherd to give us eternal life, the promise that no one will be able to snatch us out of his hand (10:28).
The preacher can also help hearers discern the Shepherd’s voice amidst all the other voices that clamor for our attention, many of whom claim to speak for God. Those voices are legion, but we do not always recognize how contrary they are to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
For instance, there are many voices that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the correct doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge or a higher level of morality.
By contrast, the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).
The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The abundant life of which Jesus speaks is not necessarily about abundance in years, or in wealth, or status, or accomplishments. It is life that is abundant in the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, love that overflows to others (John 13:34-35). It is eternal life because its source is in God who is eternal (17:3), and in Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life (11:25-26).
Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise — a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.