Rapt in Anticipation
John 10:22-24,25-30 NRSV
Most people don’t like being left in anticipation – they want to know what happens next – it brings them comfort and security. Good writers know this; that’s why they use things like cliff-hangers and foreshadowing to build the anticipation – knowing that you will keep reading or watching in the hope of returning to a place of certainty. The only thing worse than our favorite character in a novel being killed off, is the hint that they might be.
For me it’s a cliff-hanger at the end of an episode of one of my favorite shows. You won’t see a stoic face when I finish a TV episode that ends on a good cliff hanger. There’s no bemused smile, just a furious impatience at not having all my entertainment needs immediately actualized. While the anticipation might not be killing me, it sure is killing my time as I Google theories on YouTube about what could happen next!
For the Jews who came to Jesus in our passage, they approached Jesus as though he were a character in such a story. Let’s look at how they spoke:
The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:24)
Those coming to Jesus wanted to know the end of the story; how could they make plans for the future when a potential messiah was on the loose? False messiahs had come and gone before, and the Jewish people were desperate to see the real Messiah arrive and bring about the change they were looking for. Yet Jesus had not revealed himself as the Messiah – this was a classic “Is he? Is he not?” narrative!
Or was it? Jesus’ response is telling and probably didn’t contain the spoilers they were looking for:
Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.” (John 10:25-26)
Jesus sees through the people’s desire to view the Messiah like the next big thing to chat about around the water cooler. Why do these people want to know if he’s the Messiah? So they can follow him? This seems unlikely. Jesus tells us right here an important point. These are not people of his flock; even were he to declare himself the Messiah here and now they would not follow him (quite the opposite we find out.) They’re not seeking the Messiah to follow – they’re seeking the next big story, the scandal of the year. They’re seeking resolution to their anticipation – they want to know … not if Jesus is the Messiah – but if he is going to claim to be the Messiah. Because if he does, the sparks are going to fly – that’s when the story gets juicy. And those posing the question intend to be part of the story.
A Messiah besieged
The Greek word that’s translated “gathered around” in verse 24 has sinister connotations – it’s only used one other place, in Luke 21:20 to describe the Romans surrounding Jerusalem before destroying it – in other words, a siege. And given we know that these very people tried to stone Jesus, it colors our understanding of the narrative. So, when they tell Jesus “Don’t keep us in suspense!” there are other motivations at play. It might help to read the passage in a more mocking tone, given we can see their ill intent.
Yet amidst all of this, Jesus takes the opportunity to continue his lesson. The context for our passage is rich, it is part of Jesus’ last public address before his crucifixion in the gospel of John. And we are told he is speaking at Hannukah – the Festival of Dedication. It’s wintertime, and the group are gathered in Solomon’s Colonnade, a section of the temple that allowed people to shelter from the cold while still hearing teaching. Hannukah reminded the Jewish people to beware of false leaders who lead you astray. Ezekiel 34 would frequently be read during this time, a passage that warns Israel to avoid the false shepherds and cling to the Good Shepherd.
So as the people huddle together for warmth, teaching and discussion Jesus has already made an incredibly bold claim – he is the Good Shepherd (John 10:14). This is what he is referring to when he tells them in verse 25, “I did tell you, but you do not believe.” In no uncertain terms, Jesus has declared who he is to the people who are now questioning him. And they knew it too – in verse 33 they tell him their reason for stoning him is that he has claimed “to be God.”
Throughout his ministry Jesus has avoided the question of messiahship, as it would have hindered his ministry. Yet here he does not shy away – he gives the group besieging him exactly what they want. Why?
All for the sheep
The clue is in what he says next, and just as importantly, whom he says it to:
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” – (John 10:27-30)
Jesus has already established for us that those who are besieging him are not his sheep. Yet the words he speaks here are words of incredible encouragement to anyone who would identify as a follower of Jesus. They are words of great encouragement to us. Jesus is speaking to all his sheep – any who are included among those huddled from the cold in Solomon’s Colonnade, to believers scattered around the globe for the past 2,000 years, and to us. There is one clear message conveyed to us here, we have heard his voice; we are to follow.
This section of Scripture teaches us three things about our life in Jesus:
- Being part of the flock is to both receive a gift, and be a gift
- Eternal life is just that, eternal
- We are secure in the hands of the Father and the Son
Without delving too deeply into the incredibly complex debate of predestination right now, this we can say: our ability to hear the Shepherd and follow is a freely-given gift from the Father. But what is more, we are also a gift to Jesus from the Father – given and received in love, by the power of the Holy Spirit who has opened our ears to hear Jesus.
This certainty reassures as – there is nothing we can do to escape the love of God, which we have been given by the Father, received by the Son, through the Holy Spirit. The fullness of God’s triune being has defined what it means to be one of his children.
- Eternal Life is just that, eternal
Perhaps when you’ve tried to conceive the concept of eternity, you’ve either struggled to conceive of it at all, or you went too deep and ended up in an existential crisis induced panic attack. It is a hard concept to get our heads around. But here Jesus summarizes the eternal part for us beautifully, we shall never perish. We know from John 17:3 that eternal life is coming to know God fully – life forever with God. And now, this passage tells us we will not cease to exist in this life with God. Perhaps this not ceasing to exist thing is a bit easier to conceptualize than the living forever bit, and certainly it induces fewer existential crises.
- We are secure in the hands of the Father and the Son
Jesus tells us that not only can we not be plucked from his firm and almighty grip, but that furthermore we are also in the grip of the Father. In this statement he makes it clear that in giving us to Jesus, the Father does not let go of us. It is the certainty of our place in the fold of God that allows the apostle Paul to write this:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39).
We need fear no thing and no one for we are in the hands of God, safe and secure.
Jesus concludes this passage with a clear statement of unity with the Father – “I and the Father are one.” This statement is referring to unity of will and purpose. He is reaffirming the certainty of purpose that God has toward his sheep, the future is secure in his hands. There’s no villain coming back from the dead for a final scare, no ironic defeat for the heroes at the last moment, no bogeyman that spirits us away from our life in God.
This is the good news of the Good Shepherd. Though our lives might sometimes have the drama of a serial TV series, we don’t have any cliff hangers, we need not wring our hands in rapt anticipation of how the story ends. We know for certainty the parts that matter:
- We will know God amid his abundant gift-giving love.
- We will not perish.
- There will be no twist endings.
Glory be to God.