Further Conflict Over Jesus' Claims
22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon's Colonnade. 24 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."
25 Jesus answered, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father's name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. 30 I and the Father are one."
I was walking down the hallway when a young woman suddenly stepped in front of me. I almost ran into her because I was looking down at some papers as I walked and I really didn’t see her until the very last moment. Not only did I nearly bump into her, I was startled a bit as she stepped right in my path. She quickly thrust a piece of paper at me as she introduced herself. She was inviting people to a multi-religious group that was having an ecumenical (a word that essentially means universal belief) discussion about God. She explained that they really felt that all religions had certain aspects of the truth of God and that they all had much more in common than they had differences. I smiled as I listened to her reasoning and explanation but didn’t say much right away. She explained that they wanted everyone to come together and realize that we all share and worship the same God. Then she asked me, "well, you do believe in God don’t you?" This left me in a bit of a difficult position. I felt like I simply could not say "yes." You might wonder why not. Of all people, shouldn’t a minister be able to answer that question quickly. The problem was not in whether or not I believed in God but in what her understanding of God was. I could not just say "yes," because, based on what I knew she believed God to be, a "yes" answer would have been difficult and misleading. My answer to that question needed a lot more explaining than a simple "yes" could provide.
Some people might ask, "what’s the point with all of that?" She asked a simple question, why not give a simple answer? Sometimes, in cases like that, a simple answer would actually be outright misleading. If I had said I do believe in God, she would not have been hearing at all what I was trying to say. We see this same principle at work in the life of Jesus quite often. There are many times when Jesus seems to be rather cryptic and mysterious about his work and identity. Why, we wonder, didn’t he just come out be much more direct about things? Why didn’t he just tell people who he was, that he was the Messiah? For the same reason that I couldn’t simply say "yes" to the young lady who wanted to know if I believed in God. If Jesus just came out and said certain things, it would actually have been misleading, because they would have been understanding and hearing something much different than what he was actually saying.
In the second century B.C., Israel and Jerusalem was under the rule of the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus IV, also known as Antiochus Ephiphanes, oversaw the area. Among other things he had deposed the standing High Priest Jason and put Menelaus in charge as priest. While he was fighting in Egypt, Jason gathered up 1,000 soldiers and attacked Jerusalem forcing Menalaus to flee. As Antiochus returned, he violently took Jerusalem with a vengeance, killing many Jews. He destroyed large portions of the city and even took control of the Temple. He outlawed Judaism and began to offer pigs in sacrifice to Zeus in the Holy of Holies. The Festival known as Dedication or Hanukkah began as a celebration of the re-dedication of the Temple after Antiochus was defeated in a revolt led by Judah Maccabaeus. Judah took control of Jerusalem and began a line of kings that lasted for a hundred years. Thus, this festival came to be associated with the ideas of Kings, the Temple being cleansed, and liberation that came from God.
John informs us that it was exactly during that festival, with all of those ideas swirling about, that this scene takes place. Jesus was in Solomon’s Colonnade, a covered area of the Temple that would have provided shelter against the cold, winter winds. Perhaps John points out the double time marker that it was winter as a symbolic marker of the cold and biting attitude with which the Jews gathered around and hemmed in Jesus.
The one question on their mind is whether Jesus is the Messiah or not? What is translated as "How long will you keep us in suspense," is actually a figure of speech in the original language that is not nearly as nice or innocent sounding as it is in the English translation. They are confused, frustrated, and yet cannot just dismiss Jesus’ claims because of his mighty works and growing following. They want an outright statement on their terms. Is he the Messiah or is he not. Does it seem too much to ask, we might wonder, for Jesus to just plainly state that he is the Messiah? Isn’t it true that the only reason he wouldn’t just come out and say it plainly was if he wasn’t the Messiah? Well, in a word, "no".
The Jews had very clear expectations for the Messiah. They wanted a great kingly political and military leader like Judah Maccabaeus who would lead the people of Israel in revolt. They wanted the pagan Roman hordes out of Jerusalem. That’s what the Messiah would be and that’s what he should be doing. So, if Jesus just says, "Yes, I am the Messiah," this would actually be a misleading and problematic answer. He was the Messiah, but not at all the Messiah that they were expecting.
Jesus did tell them but they did not believe. Many commentators puzzle over these words because nowhere in John’s Gospel does Jesus tell the Jews that he is the Messiah in a straightforward manner. Rather than attempting to come up with some sort of theological gymnastics to explain those words, we just need to turn to the rest of verse 25 to see Jesus’ explanation. He did not tell them in words but he told them clearly in actions. The problem was that they had their own expectations and assumptions about who the Messiah was and what sorts of things he would do. That’s why he performed works and miracles. He was showing them what the Messiah did. They had to see who God’s Messiah really was and what he was doing rather than just be told. If he just said, "yes, I’m the Jewish Messiah," the Jews would have heard something completely different than what Jesus would have been saying. Their idea of Messiah had to be completely redefined and that could be done far better through actions than through just words.
This is so valuable and instructive for those of us who are surrounded by a world that often thinks of something far different when they hear the term "Christian" than what we mean when we say that we are Christians. The world’s concept of that term and what it means to be a Christian is so conditioned, misinformed, and defined by false concepts, false ideas, and even false Christians, that simply telling them we’re Christians can often be misleading. Perhaps we need to follow Jesus’ example and find ways to demonstrate and live out our Christianity first so that these types of people can experience true Christianity before we try to define it with words. We need to learn to give out "free samples," as it were. When Jesus did this, those who wanted to find the truth responded to the actions of the true Messiah and came to genuine faith. This shouldn’t be used, of course, as an excuse to never talk to anyone or share our faith, but it is a call to think about how our words are going to be taken before we carelessly utter them.
When all is said and done, though, they didn’t believe him because they were not his sheep. His sheep are the ones that are genuinely looking for God’s truth not for a missing piece to fit into their own preconceived mold. When they hear the voice of his actions, when they encounter the new creation, they immediately know the shepherd and they follow him.
To Jesus’ sheep he gives eternal life, the life of the age to come, and the assurance that no one will snatch them out of his hand. Jesus’ sheep are not just in his hands but also the hand of the Father, since he and the Father are one in purpose. They are inseparable yet distinguishable from one another. With his promise that no one will snatch his sheep from his hand, Jesus balances the certainty and security of the promises of God and His power with the weakness of man’s will and ability. If we stumble from the life of Christ it is not from the lack of God’s love or grace, or the vicious power of God’s enemies, but is a result of our own neglect to stay in the life of Christ that God has so mercifully made available to us. God will not violate our free will, but He gives us every opportunity to protect ourselves from ourselves, but we often don’t take advantage of those safeguards. In Romans 8:38-39, Paul notes that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, but the one thing he does not mention is our own will. No one can snatch us from God’s hand and God will never drop us from His care, but we can walk out of the life of Christ and reject God’s love. True sheep, however, will never leave the shepherd’s fold.
Can you think of people that you talk to regularly who may have an entirely different perception of what it means to be a Christian than what you mean. They might even have a very negative view based on our cultural version of American Christianity. How can you go about in your own life representing what Christianity really is? How can you follow Jesus example of speaking with your works rather than just words?