The more I read Sunday’s text, the more I think it is critical to take John 10:31-42 into account, at least in our preaching if not in our reading. Jesus’ opponents surround Jesus and press him for a public declaration. This sort of encirclement usually happens on the basis of hostile intent, at least according to regular usage in ancient Greek. As we see later in the text, this is a group that is itching to pick up rocks and start throwing.
This exchange has much more the flavor of a trial than of a rabbinic debate. In fact, some commentators describe it as precisely that – a preview of the trial that is to come during Holy Week. That image is important to keep in mind when we think in a few moments about the particular scripture verse Jesus quotes (or that the Johannine author places on his lips – that’s not critical to the thinking here). Psalm 82 also depicts a trial scene, so there’s something going on that’s worth noticing.
This encounter takes place in “Solomon’s Stoa” – a portico on the east side of the Temple complex. Of course, this was not the actual structure built by Solomon nine centuries earlier. That temple had been destroyed. The current structure was probably founded on some foundation stones remaining from the (an?) earlier structure, but it was part of the new facility still being built by King Herod and his successors. That being said, this part of the complex was associated with judgments rendered by the king – that is, in the context of controversies and trials.
The details of the text, which have been apparent to the first listeners and readers interacting with the Johannine account, lead us to imagine this as a trial and judgment scene. One of the ironic questions which I believe the Johannine author wants to pose is this. Who is really on trial? And what is at stake in the outcome of this confrontation, beyond Jesus’ physical safety? It is clear that Jesus’ opponents seek to put him on trial and demand his testimony. But I think the outcome is that Jesus puts them on trial and finds them wanting.
The quote from Psalm 82:6, in John 10:34, is yet another example of the “little text, big context” rule of interpretation. On one level, Jesus uses the language of that verse to turn the argument against him on its head. On another level, I think that Jesus (or at least the Johannine author) wants listeners and readers to imagine the setting and argument of the entire Psalm as we seek to interpret and respond to the story we have before us.
James Jansen examines this text through the lens of the trial motif in the Johannine account. “If the major theme of John is the question of the identity of Jesus,” Jansen argues, “then forensic exchange in response to the signs and words of Jesus would appear to be the primary method deployed by John to expose the truth regarding Jesus’ person and purpose” (page 2). We know from the Johannine statement of purpose in John 20:30-31 that a true understanding of Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God is precisely the primary Johannine purpose.
Repeatedly in the Johannine account, Jesus’ assertions about his own identity are put to the test. But that trial is always reversed. The forensic lens is focused on the supposed questioner. For example, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and wants some certification of Jesus’ identity to legitimate the signs he does. It takes just a few lines, however, for the test to become one of Nicodemus’ willingness to be born anew and to see God’s work in a new worldview. I would suggest a similar reversal takes place in the second half of John 10.
I want to quote Jansen in this regard, as he summarizes the work of Lincoln in Truth on Trial. There is a “surface trial” where the Jewish authorities position themselves as plaintiff and judge. Jesus is therefore the defendant. “But the second level situation sets Jesus as both chief witness and judge of a cosmic trial where He,” Jansen writes, “as God’s authoritative representative, stands against all those who d not receive the truthful witness of His signs and words” (page 3).
What is at stake in this proceeding is, I think, the place of the sheep in the arms of the Good Shepherd. We might well focus on a variety of characteristics of the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd leads the sheep rather than drives them. The Good Shepherd knows the sheep by name and calls them. The Good Shepherd walks with the sheep and will not abandon them. The Good Shepherd lays down the Shepherd’s life for the sheep.
It is this last feature that I think is highlighted in our text for Sunday – that the Shepherd advocates for, defends from attackers, and fights for the flock. As part of that work of flock defense, the Good Shepherd calls to account those who should also be fighting for the well-being of the members of the flock. This is where some reflection on Psalm 82 is perhaps helpful.
Psalm 82 is a trial scene. The God of Israel stands in the midst of the Divine Council. This is a fairly typical image in the Old Testament and reflects the assumptions of the ancient Israelites regarding the reality of other gods. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on that one, but the archaeological and ethnological details are not critical at this point. What does matter is that the God of Israel is encircled by figures who are charged with maintaining the well-being of the weak and the orphan, the lowly and the destitute, the weak and the needy (see Psalm 82:3-4).
Scholars debate the identity of those “gods” who find themselves on trial here. That identity is not so much to the point as is their responsibility. The verdict is clear. They have judged unjustly and shown partiality to the wicked (verse 2). The wicked are in contrast to those classes of people who need protection, listed in verses three and four. Thus, the wicked are the powerful, the well-positioned, and the rich – those who make up the privileged establishment.
These rulers have been placed in the position of “gods” by God – in the place where they have the power of life and death over others. They have been given the role of children of God – called to care for those for whom God cares. And they have failed in their responsibilities. Thus, these kings will lose their exalted positions and will die like mortals, will fall from their thrones like any human prince (Psalm 82:7).
The Psalmist calls this scene to mind imploring God to judge the earth – which is clearly ruled by kings who have failed in their responsibilities. Come and advocate for us, O God, the Psalmist seems to pray. Fight for us in the divine council and call these failed rulers to account for their wickedness! I think that Jesus calls this setting into the imagination of his opponents, and the Johannine author calls the setting into the imaginations of us as listeners and readers. Therefore, it seems to me that it is critical to understanding the scene we have in John 10:22-30.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, fights for the well-being of the flock. Jesus advocates for the well-being of the flock in the midst of those who have failed in their responsibilities for those who need such tender care. I want to be careful and note that this is not an anti-Jewish reading of the text. This is a reading against any and all members of any religious establishment who put personal power, privilege, position, and property ahead of the needs of God’s flock. Jesus’ opponents find themselves on trial in the same way that the members of the divine council did in Psalm 82.
I hear tremendously good news in this reading of the text. Jesus advocates, argues, and fights for me when I cannot do so for myself. Especially at those times when I am beaten into submission by the realities of life and loss, I can and do pray with the Psalmist for God – for Jesus, who is one with the Father – to rise up and advocate for me. I am comforted, encouraged, and energized by the image of Jesus in the center of the courtroom (or the ring) doing battle for me against the forces that would seek to hold me in bondage.
I don’t see Jesus, however, as the sort of hyper-masculine conqueror that so many American Christians seem to desire today. Instead, the One who fights for me uses the weapons of love and tenderness, of peace and justice, of compassion and self-giving. The Good Shepherd will not use the tools of the Evil One to defeat the Evil One. That would simply exchange one self-serving tyrant for another.
In the Easter season, we Christians confess that God does indeed “rise up” (again see Psalm 82:8) to confront and defeat the forces of sin, death, and evil. God will not permit anyone to rip the beloved from the arms of the Good Shepherd – not even that unholy triad.
Those who are committed to any religious establishment that puts personal power, privilege, position, and property ahead of the needs of God’s flock have chosen to trust in someone or something other than Jesus. That’s not predestination or fatalism. That is a choice that has been made, a choice that refuses to protect God’s flock. Those who make such a choice in Christian communities today stand in the same adversarial position with Jesus as did those in Solomon’s portico with their stones stacked at the ready.
While I’m not sure that all of this exegetical detail is useful for preaching, I do think it gives a clear indication of the center of the text – that Jesus not only holds us close but fights to hang onto us in the face of threat and danger. And I think it’s an invitation to hold one another tightly as well in this time when so much seeks to tear us apart.
References and Resources
DENNERT, BRIAN C. “Hanukkah and the Testimony of Jesus’ Works (John 10:22—39).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132, no. 2 (2013): 431–51. https://doi.org/10.2307/23488021.
Janssen, J. and Hartley, J. “Psalm 82 and the Trial Motif in John 10.” https://www.academia.edu/download/44574210/Psalm82_and_the_Trial_Motif_in_John_10_-_James_Janssen_2010-12-19.pdf.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust. HarperCollins, 2000.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.
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