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This Is Discipleship

Read   John 10: 1-30

Nearly all of the teachings and actions of Jesus found in chapters 5-10 of John’s gospel are somehow related to one of the many Jewish religious festivals. 

 Chapters 7-8 are generally agreed to be related to the Feast of the Tabernacles. The events recorded in chapter 9 are thought to have taken place shortly after Tabernacles.

Chapter 10 is usually associated with the Feast of Dedications or Hanukkah (10:22).  Believing that Jesus probably spent the span of time between these two festivals (about three months) in or near Jerusalem, Beasley-Murray suggests that 10:1-21 is associated with that period following the healing of the blind man, while the events recorded in 10:22-39 probably took place during the Feast of the Dedications (Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 36, p. 167).  However, there is not complete agreement at this point.  A strong case is made by many that some type of editorial or accidental dislocation has disturbed the original order of the text.

 Even though no rearrangement is generally accepted by scholars, the argument usually offered is that the parable and discourse in 10:1-18 are an intrusion into the text, and that 10:19-21 should probably follow 9:41.  The reasons for this suggestion are that 10:21 more logically follows the healing of the blind man and that the allegory of the “good shepherd” (10:11) and the reference to the “sheep” (10:28) also seem to belong together (Interpreters Bible, Vol. 8, p. 621).

In today’s blog, the feud which has been developing between Jesus and the Jews continues to be of importance as we attempt to interpret the text.  For the last several blogs addressing passages from John’s Gospel, we have witnessed this conflict continually increase in intensity.  Now, as we read chapter 10, the conflict seems to reach the boiling point.

The context for the story in today’s text is found in the preceding chapter.  In Chapter 9, a would-be disciple of Jesus was excommunicated from the synagogue (9:32).  This event led to a discourse as to where such a person could find acceptance, as well as protection from the false leaders of God’s flock (10:1-18).  These words must have had special meaning for the members of the early Christian church who were also experiencing persecution at the hands of the Jewish authorities.

 In these verses, Jesus claims to be “the good shepherd” (10:11) who has been sent into the world by the Father to replace those unfaithful shepherds (the Pharisees and Sadducees) who had led the people astray, and kept them from experiencing the relationship with God that was the Divine’s intent from the beginning. 

 The “good shepherd”

 In an attempt to establish one religion throughout his empire, Antiochus Epiphanes had forbidden the Jews from practicing their faith in the temple and had commanded that it be used instead for the worship of Zeus.  In a series of valiant battles in 167 B.C., Judas Maccabeus led the faithful Jews to victory over the forces of Antiochus.  In 164 B.C., the Hanukkah feast was instituted as a time of cleansing and rededication for the temple which had been defiled by pagan worship rituals (see 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 for a description of these events).  Objects related to the worship of Zeus were removed from the temple, and the Jewish people celebrated the temple’s restoration in rituals involving light provided by many lights and candles.  For this reason, the event is popularly called the “feast of lights.”

Though the temple remained in a good sate of repair during the ministry of Jesus, the spiritual condition of the religious leadership was in a state of decay.  Those who controlled the temple were a wealthy, aristocratic and self-righteous group of individuals whom the evangelist refers to simply as “the Jews.”  These leaders were in no way similar to the Old Testament’s ideal figure of the shepherd.  Once again, the implications of Jesus’ teaching angered “the Jews.”  At a time when the people were preparing to celebrate a feast honoring the cleansing of the temple, Jesus claimed that the Jewish faith was still defiled because of its unfaithful shepherds.  Furthermore, He said that the so-called religious leaders held more of a resemblance to “thieves and robbers” (10:1) than to shepherds.  The “thieves and robbers” included all of those false prophets, false messiahs and self-serving religious leaders who have abused the people of God for their own earthly desires.

Verses 1-5 record the only parable in John’s gospel.  Verse 6 informs us that the hearers of this parable did not understand the implications of what Jesus was saying.  No doubt, they understood what he meant when he referred to sheep.  What they refused to accept was that they were the ones to whom He was referring as the unfaithful shepherds of God’s flock.

Door to God’s presence

 Jesus begins to interpret His parable by explaining his claim to be the “gate” (NIV) through which all sheep must pass in order to have a relationship with God.           The Jewish religion taught that the “gate” heredity, religious practices, rules and regulations – all things that fell under the control mechanisms of the religious elite. 

 To this religious culture Jesus’ words were a radical challenge.  The true “gate” was no longer heredity and/or circumcision.  “I am the gate,” Jesus said, “whoever enters through Me will be saved” (10:9, see also 14:6).  The sweeping condemnation that “all who came before Me are thieves and robbers” (10:8) must not be taken too literally.  Jesus is certainly not including in this condemnation such figures as Moses or Elijah or John the Baptizer.  He is probably referring to those authorities who had just excommunicated the formerly blind man (9:41), as well as all other religious leaders who had misused their positions of authority and misrepresented the nature of Father/Abba. 

Jesus is very pointed in his comments.  The aim of such leaders was to “steal and destroy,” but Jesus had come that people might “have life, and have it abundantly.”

So, what is “abundant life?”  In our society, this phrase has many connotations.  For some, it means an abundance of wealth or material possessions.  For others, it means having a large family, good health or worldly power.”  In the context of our scripture lesson, however, “abundant life” is life connected to God through the mediation of Jesus Christ, something which we experience and enjoy through repentance.  This repentance is not about some process of self-improvement whereby we overcome some sinful deed(s).  Rather it is about the transformation of our understanding of God.  God is not some angry, vindictive, vengeful Deity, but rather is revealed (in Christ) as a loving and gracious Father who has loved us from the beginning.  This was the picture of God Jesus came to reveal.

 We do play a role in this relationship.  But that is NOT saying or doing something to achieve or obtain this love.  That would simply be more religion.  Instead, faith is learning to accept God’s acceptance of us.  This is what it means to “be saved.”  Bill Hull writes, “Such salvation is not a static possession but a dynamic pilgrimage in and out to find the pasture of life which He (Jesus) will abundantly provide” (Broadman’s Commentary, Vol. 9, p. 305).

The shepherd knows

 In the second part of His explanation, Jesus turns his attention to the symbol of the “shepherd.”  Many commentators feel it is important to explain how Jesus could be both a door (10:7) and a shepherd (10:11).  It is important to remember that when Jesus spoke He was using a “figure of speech” (10:6, NIV).  As He ministers, Jesus serves as both a “door” and a “shepherd” but in reality His ministry is much broader in scope than those analogies indicate.

In what ways does Jesus function as a shepherd, and why is he a better shepherd than all those religious leaders who preceded Him?  First of all, He is willing to “lay down His life for the sheep” (10:11).

Shepherds were responsible for seeing to the care and protection of their sheep.  Jesus is claiming to love His sheep so much that He would risk danger and death to see to their safety.  This is in contrast to the hireling who is indifferent to the needs of the sheep and who runs whenever danger approaches (10:12-13).

 Jesus is also a better shepherd than the other religious leaders because He knows His sheep, and they know Him (10:14).  As I traveled through the Middle East while a student in seminary, our tour group saw something which illustrated for me the meaning of the phrase.  As we were returning to our bus after having visited a certain archaeological site, we heard music from a distance.  Across a valley, we saw a shepherd playing his flute followed by about two dozen sheep.  They passed by a place where some other sheep were located but none of them wandered away from the sound of the flute.  This shepherd knew his sheep, and they responded to the sound of his music.

Jesus goes on to say that the relationship between Him and His sheep is so close that it can only be likened to that bond between Him and God.  Because Jesus’ love for humanity is this strong, He is willing to do whatever is necessary to protect them.  He is willing to do whatever is necessary to reveal the Father’s love to us and for us.  He is willing to do whatever is necessary to accomplish ATONEMENT (at-one-ment) between humanity and the Father.  He is even willing to lay down his life for them (10:15, 18).  He offers His life not only out of love for the sheep but also out of obedient love for God, who plan it was to reveal Father’s love for all humanity (10:16).

Jesus the Messiah

 Often in John’s gospel, words and phrases have secondary meanings.  When the evangelist wrote “it was winter” (10:22), he may have been referring to the spiritual condition of some of the Jews, as well as the physical climate.  The religious authorities were leading the nation in a celebration honoring the triumph of their faith and the restoration of the temple, yet their hearts were as cold as ice.

Some thought that Jesus was the messiah but they were not sure.  On the one hand, He had given sight to the blind (10:21).  On the other hand, His teachings were offensive, and he didn’t follow their religious traditions.  Upset that His parabolic discourse was unclear and His identity uncertain, some of the Jews demanded, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (10:24).

Jesus responded by saying that His teachings and actions had already indicated His identity.  He had fulfilled all messianic expectations.  He had spoken those things which God instructed Him to say.  He had even restored sight for a man born blind.’’           

There was nothing more He could do or say that could convince the unbelievers that He was their messiah.  The reason why the religious authorities had problems accepting that He was the messiah was because they had no faith.  They refused to believe that the messiah would have to suffer and die (10:11-18).   Since they refused to accept a suffering messiah, they could not be a part of His fold (10:26).  They refused to see God as a being who was actually that loving and gracious.

 Believers listen

 Just the opposite is true for those who believe in the picture of God Jesus incarnates in his life.  Such people listen to the gospel message.  Since they are willing to listen, they learn and see and enjoy a relationship with Father.  Now, with that, we are back to the question of life – abundant life. 

 In that relationship, the sheep put complete trust in the Shepherd who gives them the gift of “eternal life” (10:27-28). They not only enjoy the protection of the “Good Shepherd, “but they are also protected by God the Father, for Father and the “Shepherd” are one (10:30).

 The sheep are those who are willing to give themselves over the God who has given God’s self over for all the world.  These are the ones who hears His commands and faithfully follow His instructions, not out of obligation, expectation, requirement, or law – but out of love for the God of love.  This is discipleship. 

 Discussion questions

 1)      What images come to your mind when you think about “abundant life?”  How do these images compare to the image portrayed in today’s study?

 2)      What is the relationship between “abundant life” and discipleship?

 3)      How do our religious traditions prevent us from understanding and experiencing the fullness of life which Jesus came into the world to offer humankind?

 4)      In what ways do we experience “winter” in our souls?  (see verse 23)

 5)      How can we experience a springtime faith?

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