Readings: Acts 9:36–43, Revelation 7:9–17 & John 10:22–30
Today’s passage from John’s Gospel begins with the words, “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem.” To get a better idea of what John is trying to tell us in this passage, we need to know something of the history of the festival of Dedication.
In the year 167 BCE, a Jew named Judas Maccabaeus led a revolt in Jerusalem against the Seleucid Empire, whose territory included Syria, which at that time took in the land of Judea and its capital Jerusalem. One of the incidents that led to the revolt by the Jews, was the offering of a sacrifice, by the Seleucids, to the pagan god Zeus in the Temple, on a pagan altar built over the altar of holocausts, the altar on which the Jewish High Priest would offer animal sacrifices to God. This pagan altar was referred to by the Jews as “the desolating sacrifice”.
Three years later, in 164 BCE, Jewish forces defeated the Seleucids. The first task after their victory was to purify the Temple. The “desolating sacrilege” was torn down and a new altar of holocausts erected. The Temple area was rebuilt and refurbished. Lamps were set up to illuminate the sacred ground once again, marking the restoration of Temple order. Following this the Temple was rededicated, and this event was commemorated each year in the celebration of the feast of the Dedication.
In celebrating the Dedication, “the Jews” prided themselves on their reconsecrated Temple, which was the physical evidence of their belonging to God and, in some way, of God’s belonging to them. From the time of King Solomon, the Temple in Jerusalem had been a sign of God’s presence among His people.
John’s Gospel tells us that as Israel celebrated God’s presence at the feast of Dedication, Jesus told “the Jews” there was another way that God was present to them. They no longer needed to look to the physical building of the Temple to know that God was present among His people. Jesus himself claimed that he was the visible presence of God among them. If they believed in him, then they could be certain they were in God’s care.
Jesus told the Jews, “The Father and I are one”. In saying this, Jesus was doing what no Jewish Messiah would have been expected to do. He was claiming to replace the Temple. With these words we are reminded of the promise from the Prologue of John’s Gospel: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14 NRSV)
The setting of the words of Jesus (“The Father and I are one”) within the feast of Dedication, indicates further that the union between God and the Temple, that was seen as God’s presence to the people, is perfected in Jesus because of his oneness with the Father.
John tells us that the Jews asked Jesus to tell them if he was the Messiah. Jesus responded that he had already told them that he was, but they hadn’t believed him. And using the same language that he used in the Parable of the Good Shepherd, which of course immediately precedes today’s passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the Jews that the reason they don’t believe him is because they are not “his sheep”.
They do not belong to his sheep and are therefore unable to accept his word, or see the revelation of God in the works that he performs. Neither are they able to believe that he is the Messiah. The sheep of the Good Shepherd hear his voice and respond to it, but “the Jews” do not. Those who do hear his voice and respond to it, will never perish; they will have eternal life.
This message of salvation, is at the heart of the passage from our reading from the Book of Revelation this morning. “For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ (Rev. 7:17)
Jesus is the Lamb. Being at the centre of the throne is a reference to the oneness of Jesus with God (“The Father and I are one”). Jesus will be their shepherd–he is the Good Shepherd–the one who lays down his life for their own. Jesus will guide them to the springs of the water of life–they will have eternal life with him. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, which means that God will provide for their every need.
We are reminded of Jesus’ love for us. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27–28 NRSV) Jesus knows us; and we know him. He remains in us; and we remain in him.