We now come to the climax of Jesus' public ministry. In a sense his ministry remains public until chapter 13, but this encounter is the last public teaching before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which is the beginning of his Passion. Here he speaks as clearly as possible about himself and his opponents. This exchange is his last effort to get them to understand who he is. Later, when they try to raise the issue again he simply calls upon them to respond to the light he has already given them (12:34-36).
This teaching occurs at the Feast of Dedication (v. 22), about two months after the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast commemorates the rededication of the temple in 164 B.C. (1 Macc 4:36-59; 2 Macc 10:1-8; Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 12.316-26). The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes had forbidden Jews to continue to practice their religion and had tried to force them to worship Zeus. He had an altar set up in the temple in Jerusalem and sacrifice was offered on this altar on the 25th of Chislev, 167 B.C. This led to a revolt known as the Maccabean Revolt. It was initiated by a priest named Mattathias and then carried on under the leadership of his son Judas, known as Maccabeus, "the hammer" (1 Macc 1—3; 2 Macc 5—9; Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 12.248-315). The revolt was successful, and the temple was restored and rededicated, with proper sacrifice being offered once again, beginning on the 25th of Chislev, 164 B.C. An eight-day feast was held and has continued each year from that time, and it is known today as Hanukkah. A hallmark of the festival is the lighting of lamps and a sense of joy.
Jesus has withdrawn from the temple (8:59) and begun to gather around him a community distinct from official Judaism (chap. 9). He has interpreted his activity as the divine shepherd's gathering the flock of God (10:1-21) and has concluded with a reference to the authority God has given him to lay down his life and take it back again (10:18), echoing what he had said in his first public teaching to these Jewish leaders concerning his body, the temple (2:19-22). Now he returns to the vicinity of the temple, though not to the temple proper. Solomon's Colonnade (10:23) was an open, roofed 45-foot walkway with double columns that were 38 feet tall. It was situated along the east side of the Court of Gentiles (Westerholm 1988:772). Although it was part of the temple complex, it was not considered to be part of the actual temple (Brown 1966:402), as evidenced by the fact that Gentiles were not allowed into the temple but they could be present in Solomon's Colonnade. Thus, Jesus' departure from the temple at the end of chapter 8 was final. But now, right next to the temple, at a feast commemorating the rededication of the temple, Jesus gives his clearest teaching about his own identity. It is this identity that is the grounds for his replacement of the temple as the place where forgiveness of sins is available and God is to be met. "Christ in fact perfectly accomplished what the Maccabees wrought in a figure, and dedicated a new and abiding temple" (Westcott 1908:2:64). Jesus also clearly spells out the separation between himself and the Jewish leaders.
These leaders surround Jesus in the colonnade (v. 24), perhaps so he could not escape as he had before (8:59) or perhaps just out of intense earnestness. They keep asking him (elegon, an imperfect), How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly (v. 24). They are tired of the figures of speech (cf. 10:6). Jesus realizes he has not been speaking plainly (16:25) in that he hasn't said simply, "I am the Messiah." But he also can reply, I did tell you (v. 25), for if one puts his words and deeds together, the message is plain enough. The problem lies not in his lack of clarity, but in their lack of faith (v. 25), for they are not his sheep (v. 26). In this way Jesus continues to work with the imagery of sheep and shepherd, and now he applies it to his opponents. He is speaking more plainly, for earlier he had not actually said these opponents were not of his flock, though the thought was expressed rather clearly through the images he used.
After saying that these Jewish leaders are not his sheep Jesus describes something of the blessings of those who are his sheep. He repeats his earlier teaching that each of his sheep hear his voice, are known by him, follow him (v. 27; cf. vv. 3, 4, 14, 16) and have eternal life (v. 28; cf. vv. 9-10). He concludes with a dramatic emphasis on the security of his sheep: no one can snatch them out of my hand (v. 28). In the light of the danger to the sheep from thieves, robbers and wolves this comes as a great comfort. The security of the sheep rests on the shepherd. Jesus' reference to himself as the one able to protect his flock from all dangers is yet another aspect of the incredible claims he is making in this chapter. As always, however, he is not acting on his own apart from the Father: My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand (v. 29). Again we see the primacy of the Father, the one who these opponents think is their God. In threatening Jesus and his followers they are up against God himself.
In this passage of infinite comfort this Gospel touches once again upon the mysteries of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. We have both the call of God and the response of faith on the part of the sheep. B. F. Westcott captures the balance well when he says we must distinguish between
the certainty of God's promises and His infinite power on the one hand, and the weakness and variableness of man's will on the other. If man falls at any stage in his spiritual life, it is not from want of divine grace, nor from the overwhelming power of adversaries, but from his neglect to use that which he may or may not use. We cannot be protected against ourselves in spite of ourselves. He who ceases to hear and to follow is thereby shown to be no true believer, 1 John ii.19. . . . The sense of the divine protection is at any moment sufficient to inspire confidence, but not to render effort unnecessary. (Westcott 1908:2:67)
His sheep are safe in his hand (v. 28) and his Father's hand (v. 29). The implication of such a juxtaposition comes with Jesus' climactic claim, I and the Father are one (v. 30). What is this oneness? In the context Jesus is speaking of God's love, care and power and his own claim to share in these. Such a claim to oneness with God is not a claim to deity, since the same unity with God is true of Christians, who share in God's very life and are participants in his will, love, activity and power. Thus Jesus is one with the Father in the same way believers are. But even when this language is used of Christians it is made clear that their oneness with God is mediated to them by Christ (17:22-23). Jesus' own oneness with the Father includes these aspects, but it also is of a completely different order (cf. 8:58). The Father not only gave Jesus life, as he has done for believers, but has made him the giver of life (5:21), a divine attribute illustrated in what Jesus says about the bread (chap. 6) and the water (chap. 7) and which will be climactically demonstrated in the raising of Lazarus (chap. 11). So this figure of the hand is not just about sharing in God's power or exercising God's power; it is part of his claim to equality with God. It implies a oneness in essence since "infinite power is an essential attribute of God; and it is impossible to suppose that two beings distinct in essence could be equal in power" (Westcott 1908:2:68; cf. Chrysostom In John 61.2; Augustine In John 48.7). Here, then, is a powerful claim to deity. The opponents take it as such (v. 33), and Jesus does not deny that interpretation.
The word used here for one is the neuter form, hen, rather than the masculine, heis. If the masculine had been used, it could have suggested that the Son is the Father, thus losing the distinctness of each, a heresy known later as Monarchianism or Sabellianism (Tertullian Against Praxeas 25; Augustine In John 36.9). But the Gospel throughout has been true to the insight revealed in the first verse of its first chapter: the Word is God, yet it is "with God," distinct from God. This truth is also found in this verse in the plural form of the verb are. "He did not say, `I and the Father am one,' but are one" (Hippolytus Against Neotus 7; Augustine In John 36.9). So although this passage is not expressed in philosophical categories, it is clear, as the church has understood and given expression in the creeds, that "some kind of metaphysical unity is presupposed, even if not articulated" (Carson 1991:395; cf. Pollard 1957).
The opponents have asked Jesus about his identity as the Messiah, and in reply he has continued his claim to deity. If they had accepted Jesus' identity as somehow divine, as at least some sort of agent of God, then they would have been able to receive him as Messiah. Jesus does not claim to be Messiah in their understanding of that term, but all of his words and deeds have been those of the Messiah in truth. But the Jews were not expecting a messiah who shared in God's divinity, and thus these opponents could not see his messiahship and were scandalized by his claims to equality with God. So, as before, they picked up stones to stone him (v. 31; cf. 8:59). But this time instead of slipping away (8:59), he discusses his claim with them.
This is a most amazing scene. They are standing there with stones and are ready to kill him, and he calmly tries to help them see their error. Here is sovereign calmness that comes from being centered in God's will, the will of the Father who is greater than all. And by continuing to try to help them come to faith even as they are seeking to stone him Jesus manifests amazing grace. He is graciously calling them to reconsider, for they know not what they do. These men are seeking to kill the one who is offering them life—offering it to them even in the midst of their attack against him. The glory of God, which is his grace, continues to shine brightly at this point.
He appeals to them on the basis of their own experience and the Scriptures. He begins with the deeds he has done: I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me? (v. 32). These deeds (erga, "works") are from the Father, from the one they claim as their God. They are great (kalos), the same word used to described the shepherd as "good" (10:11, 14). His deeds are not just great, they are admirable. "It is impossible to find a single English word equivalent to the Greek, which suggests deeds of power and moral excellence, resulting in health and well-being" (Barrett 1978:383). These are deeds that should have provoked awe and admiration and praise, not anger and hostility. They are kalos precisely because they are from the Father. Nothing is truly kalos except that which proceeds from the Father, the source of all that is good and true and worthy.
The opponents have been divided over what to make of Jesus, but a sufficient number of them have decided his scandalous claims are clear enough, whatever might be the explanation of the miracles, to warrant putting his followers out of the synagogue and stone Jesus himself: We are not stoning you for any of these . . . but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God (v. 33). The understanding of blasphemy in later sources has to do with pronouncing the divine name, the Tetragrammaton (YHWH; m. Sanhedrin 7:5). In Jewish literature the only case of calling oneself God reflects fairly clearly the debates between church and synagogue over the claims of Jesus (y. Ta'anit 2; 65b; 59; Exodus Rabbah 29:5; cf. Barrett 1978:383-84). Presumably there would not need to be a law for such a thing—it is unthinkable that one would make such a claim. But if such a claim were made, it would not take a lot of deliberation to determine that this was blasphemy against the one God. The tradition may speak of the Torah and Wisdom as divine and even hypothesize them (see comment on 1:1-2), but it would be something quite different for a human being to claim such status.
Jesus defends his claim using language they should be able to understand, through an appeal to the law. He cites a text that uses the word god of those who are not God: Is it not written in your Law, "I have said you are gods"? (v. 34). It is unclear who is being referred to in Psalm 82:6. Of the several proposals made by scholars (cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:176-77), the most likely takes this as a reference either to Israel's judges or to the people of Israel as they receive the law. The latter is a common understanding among the rabbis (for example, b. 'Aboda Zara 5a; Exodus Rabbah 32:7), but the former is also represented in Jewish interpretation (Midrash Psalms; b. Sanhedrin 6b; 7a; b. Sota 47b). Jesus' explanation that these gods are those to whom the word of God came (v. 35) might point to the Israelites receiving the law. In this case the contrast between these gods and Jesus would be that Jesus is the one who both fulfills the law and is greater than the law. But this expression to whom the word of God came could also refer to the judges (as suggested by the rest of Ps 82) who have received a commission from God to exercise the divine prerogative of judgment on his behalf. The psalm is actually a condemnation of the judges for not exercising their responsibility faithfully, thus corresponding both to the condemnation of these Jewish leaders in John and to Jesus as the true judge.
To make his point Jesus uses an argument from the lesser to the greater, a very common form of argument in the ancient world, not least among the rabbis. He compares the people who are called gods to himself, the Son of God. They merely received the word of God, whereas he is the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world (v. 36). Here is a succinct summary of the central truth of his identity, which has been emphasized throughout this Gospel. He is using the language of an agent (see note on 5:21), but the implication is that he existed with the Father before coming into the world. Thus, he is putting himself in the category of the law that was given by God rather than in the category of one of the recipients of that law. By saying he was set apart ("consecrated," hagiazo) he is claiming a status similar to the temple, whose reconsecration these opponents are celebrating at this feast.
What he means by the title Son of God goes beyond anything they had thought before, but it is not a denial of the truths of Scripture. Indeed, the Scripture itself, as illustrated by Psalm 82:6, contains hints of such a revelation, and the Scripture cannot be broken (v. 35); the Scripture cannot be kept from fulfillment (Brown 1966:404). This parenthetical comment spoken by Jesus shows how important this line of argument is for Jesus and John. But, as with all other arguments, it only makes sense if the listener is open to entertaining the truth of who Jesus is.
So the Scriptures indicate that they should not be put off by his claims and therefore should be open to the evidence of the deeds he has done. Jesus presses this line of evidence: Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles (vv. 37-38; cf. 5:19-28). His deeds are like the deeds of God, both in power and in graciousness. Miracles alone are not enough to confirm the truth of one who speaks for God (see comment on 9:33). But the point of these signs is not simply that they are powerful or awesome or supernatural but that they are in keeping with God's own character—they manifest his gracious love.
His conclusion again transcends the category of agent: that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father (v. 38). They are standing there with rocks in their hands (though perhaps not, since the rocks used for stoning were large; cf. m. Sanhedrin 6:4), and he is appealing to them to accept the evidence of their senses, as witnessed to by the Scriptures, that he is uniquely related to God. Again we see the antinomy between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. These are the folk Jesus said could not believe because they were not of his sheep (v. 26), but here he is appealing to them to believe. The Gospel is to be shared with everyone, even persecutors, for who knows—one may turn out to be a Saul (Acts 9:1-19).
But the appeal is in vain at this point: Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp (v. 39). They had not grasped his message so they tried to grasp him to kill him. "They failed to apprehend Him, because they lacked the hand of faith" (Augustine In John 48.11). The Father who is greater than all will protect those who believe in Jesus (v. 29), so how much more will he protect Jesus himself.
Jesus leaves Jerusalem and goes back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days (v. 40; cf. 1:28). John's witness was reported extensively in chapter 1 and then referred to a couple of times 3:23-30; 5:33-36). This reference ties together the first ten chapters and therefore signals the conclusion of a major section of the Gospel. Jesus' next great deed, the raising of Lazarus, reveals the heart of what his whole ministry has been about, but it takes place in a semiprivate setting. Thus the public ministry of Jesus now concludes—"the narrative of the Lord's ministry closes on the spot where it began" (Westcott 1908:2:73).
The opponents in Jerusalem have rejected him, but now, across the Jordan, many come to him and believe in him (vv. 41-42). They have received John's witness concerning Jesus: Though John never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about this man was true (v. 41). No miracles are associated with John in the New Testament, Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 18.116-19) or any other source (Bammel 1965:183-88). This is striking because "the praise of a man of God who did not perform miracles was completely unknown in Jewish sources" (Bammel 1965:191). This makes John's witness to Jesus stand out even more as the great accomplishment of his ministry. From a Christian point of view, such witness is a great work for it enables people to do the work of God, to believe in the one sent from God (6:29).
The people say that all that John said about this man was true (v. 41). The focus here is not so much on Jesus' deeds, since not all that John said had yet been accomplished, for example, taking away the sins of the world or baptizing with the Holy Spirit (1:29, 33; cf. Brown 1966:411). Rather, the focus is on Jesus' identity as the one who was to come (1:26-27, 30-31), as summarized in John's testimony: "I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God" (1:34). Now, in the light of all Jesus has said and done, the truth of this testimony has been made evident to those who are able to see.
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