It’s clear from our text that the report in John 10:22-39 is set during Hannukah, the Feast of Lights. You will recall that this Festival commemorates and celebrates the restoration of the Jerusalem Temple, and especially of the altar, after the facility was commandeered and intentionally desecrated by the Greek colonial ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes IV. These events took place from about 168-165 BCE and are recorded in various fashions in both I Maccabees and II Maccabees.
With our text, the Johannine author has set Jesus’ confrontations with his opponents in the framework of each of the three great Jewish festivals. The connections between the Passover (Pesach) and the Exodus journey are obvious in John 6, the Bread of Life discourse.
The Feast of Booths (Sukkoth), which we Christians may know loosely as Pentecost, takes its place in John 7-8. The focus there is on the “living water” made available during the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews and the ways in which Jesus fills out that sign of God’s grace.
While the Feast of Lights (or Rededication) is not directly mentioned until John 10:22, there is good reason to think that it is the framework for John 9-10 inclusive. I noted in a previous post that there could be a gap of a couple of months between John 10:21 and John 10:22. That is only the case if we assume that the Sukkoth framing in the Johannine account runs from John 7 through John 10:21. In light of additional reading and research, I am rethinking that idea.
If you would permit me to digress for a moment. One of the reasons I do this regular reading, reflecting, and writing is to explore, curate, and describe additional resources, materials, and perspectives to assist the actual “working preachers” (to shamelessly pilfer a phrase) who are out there on the homiletical front lines week in and week out.
Another of the reasons for my efforts is for my own edification and growth. I often discover what I think by writing it down. And I sometimes discover that my mind has changed, even during the course of a week. I hope it’s useful for you to observe this inner dialogue and debate. And I trust that it’s not too distracting from the task at hand.
Brian Dennert explores the usage of Hannukah imagery in our text and its implications for interpretation. He argues “that the discussion of Jesus’ works in this discourse [John 10:22-39] reflects the tendency to associate miracles with Hannukah in order to promote its observance” (page 451). Dennert tracks the trajectory of that association with miracles in Jewish documents from the centuries before the writing of the Johannine account to those after. The Johannine emphasis is consistent with and serves as a part of that miracle-emphasizing trajectory.
He concludes, “The proposed connection between Hannukah and miracles points to the discourse of John 10:22-39 operating as a defense of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God rather than as an argument that Jesus ‘fulfills’ or ‘replaces’ Hannukah” (page 451). The argument being made in the discourse, according to Dennert, is that the Jews accept miracles as grounds for establishing the legitimacy of the Hannukah observance. By contrast, they reject Jesus “in spite of his great miracles, which testify to his identity as the Messiah and Son of God” (page 451).
Even a superficial reading of this part of John 10 should make it clear that the emphasis here is on the “works” of Jesus as the grounds for establishing his legitimacy as Messiah and Son of God. Even if his opponents can’t put their faith in Jesus himself, they have precedent for giving their loyalty and trust to someone or some event based on the miracles attached with that entity. Jesus’ works, as Dennert notes, are what allow Jesus to be able to make and sustain his claims (page 448).
This framework helps us to make sense, then, of the contrast between Jesus and John in our text. The discourse notes that John didn’t do any signs – not a single one (see John 10:40-42). Jesus, on the other hand, did a great number of good works. John testified to Jesus as the Lamb of God. Jesus did the works that themselves testify to his identity as the Son of God. Dennert reminds us of Jesus’ assertion in John 9:3 that the man’s blindness was not a punishment from God but rather that “the works of God might be revealed in him” (my translation).
“The emphasis on ‘works’ in John 10:22-39 and its surrounding context,” Dennert writes, “thus corresponds to the appearance of miracles in discussions surrounding Hannukah. The discourse also features,” he continues, “a similar line of argumentation, as the miracles of Hannukah justify the feast and the works of Jesus prove his identity” (page 448-449). In addition, the connection makes it more likely that the setting for the healing of the man born blind is Hannukah and not Sukkoth. This brings a different resonance to the “Light of the World” elements of John 9.
Jesus’ opponents want to separate his works from his offensive claim that he and the Father are “one.” When Jesus asks them which of his good works is the source of the trouble, they note that the works are not the problem. Instead, the problem is Jesus’ claim of equality with God. But they can’t have the works without what the works signify. “They desire to stone him not for the good works, in their eyes, the signs that Jesus has performed,” Karoline Lewis writes, “but for making himself God, which is exactly what the signs indicate” (page 148).
The signs which Jesus performs in John 9 and 10 are those signs which are central to the Hannukah observance. Jesus gives light and life. He opens the eyes of the man born blind. And he comes that his sheep may have life and have it in abundance (John 10:10). Either he delivers on these gifts, or he is a fraud and a blasphemer. If he gives light and life, he is doing the work of God for the sake of the world. He is, thus, “one” with God.
All right – so what do we do with this hermeneutically and homiletically? Here we are on the fourth of the seven Sundays of the Easter season. The lectionary reminds us that the shine is already wearing off the Resurrection penny. The trumpets are distant echoes. The lily blossoms have faded and fallen (although some of us may have dug in our plants in hopes for future blooms). The festal crowds have dwindled back to the faithful few. It seems that nothing much has changed.
Putting our faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, day in and day out is hard. At least it’s hard for me. It doesn’t come naturally for me. Nor does it have its own staying power. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I have to keep hammering away at these texts day in and day out. Without this deep exposure to and nurture by the Living Word of God, the trumpets and lilies of my faith disappear into the darkness.
“The ubiquitous presence of pain and suffering – unwanted, apparently undeserved, and not amenable to explanation or remedy – poses an enormous obstacle to unfailing trust in the infinite goodness of God,” writes Brennan Manning in Ruthless Trust. “How does one dare,” Manning asks, “to propose the way of trust in the face of raw, undifferentiated heartache, cosmic disorder, and the terror of history?” (page 39). Manning asks a particularly apt question in this moment of political insanity, wars of aggression, pandemic pandemonium (no matter what the news tells us), and social upheaval.
Jesus invites us to look again and again at his “works,” if we cannot bear to look at him. But those works are him – the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, full of grace and truth; the crucified God who stands up to give live to a world that is always perishing, the Good Shepherd who will not permit even one of his own (and all of us are his own) to be snatched out of his loving embrace. These works are worth the attention because they are the very works of God.
“Faith arises from the personal experience of Jesus as Lord,” Manning writes. “Hope is reliance on the promise of Jesus, accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment. Trust,” he continues, “is the winsome wedding of faith and hope” (page 86). This trust is the believing about which the Johannine author writes over and over in his gospel account. “For me and many others,” Manning declares, “Jesus is the revelation of the only God worthy of trust” (page 89).
Maybe this is the thing today. Jesus’ opponents had the works and wanted them without Jesus. I have Jesus, but I’m not so sure these days that I have much in the way of his “works.” But that can’t be right. If I put myself in the arms of the loving Good Shepherd, I will see the works of the Father where others might only see darkness and destruction. And if I have that vision, I must then testify to the works.
Things look dark and deadly in many ways, but our God has not ceased to give light and life to the world. Easter isn’t over. It’s just beginning.
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.
Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.
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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