Monthly Archives: November 2018

“I am the gate; I am the good shepherd” (John 10.1-21)

“I am the gate; I am the good shepherd” (John 10.1-21)
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As we move from John 9 with its emphasis on the blind seeing, Jesus changes the metaphor. With an everyday agricultural picture he contrasts a true shepherd with a mere hireling. At first he just paints the picture without applying it spiritually at all. But his listeners failed totally to understand what he was telling them (10.6).
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The false shepherd (10.1, 5, 12/13)

Jesus underlines three points in his description of the thief and the hireling who is looking after sheep which are not his own.
a) The true shepherd will always enter the sheepfold openly through the gate. But anyone who climbs in over the wall will be not only a common thief, but also a ‘robber’ (10.1). The word used here for ‘robber’ conveys a sense of violence, describing men such as Barabbas (18.40), the bandits in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the two men who were crucified with Jesus (Matthew 27.38). Beware people who will not use the proper entry gate! In John 10.7 Jesus describes himself as “the gate for the sheep”, so be very careful of anyone who refuses Jesus as the way into the sheepfold!
b) However much the thief may pretend to be a shepherd, the sheep will not accept him (10.5). They know their true shepherd and will refuse the call of the thief. They will not ‘follow’ him. In the Gospels ‘follow’ signifies true faith and commitment to Jesus. His original call to his disciples was “Come, follow me” (Matthew 4.19). In following Jesus, we come to believe and trust in him. This will lead to committed obedience, following his commands and example. However much the thief may call them to follow him, the sheep will not recognise his voice and will run away from him when he approaches them.
c) As the hireling does not own the sheep himself, he will not be willing to face danger in order to protect them. He suffers no loss if some of them are killed by a wolf. Faced with the danger of attack by a wolf, he will just run away and abandon the sheep. Unlike the true disciple, the hireling avoids all danger and suffering in service of his master and on behalf of the sheep and their welfare.
What a picture these three points give of Jesus as the door and as the good shepherd! What a contrast with false shepherds too!
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The sheepfold

In John 10 John does not use the common Greek word for a sheepfold which appears several times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Obviously meaning the sheepfold, Jesus refers to it with the word commonly translated ‘palace’. For the sheep their pen represents safety, comfort and general well-being. For them it is indeed like a palace. Evidently too they do not want to leave it and face the dangers outside where wild animals represent a very real threat. So Jesus says that the true shepherd leads the sheep out (10.3) and ‘when he has led them out, he walks before them’ (10.4). Literally in 10.4 Jesus ‘throws out’ his sheep and then reassuringly walks ahead of them. This rather violent word for ‘lead/throw out’ in 10.4 is used also of God sending/throwing out labourers into his harvest field (Matthew 9.38). Just as the sheep may not want to leave the palace of their pen, so also Christians may prove reluctant to leave their comfort zones and venture out into the harvest fields of mission. So God’s Spirit has to flex his olympian muscles and throw them out! In secular speech this same strong verb was used of throwing smelly rubbish as far as possible from your house – no public works men collected rubbish in those days! I am of course not suggesting that Christian workers can in any way be paralleled to smelly rubbish!
In the sheepfold it may feel like a palace to the sheep, but actually they needed to go outside for pasture. Likewise for Christians we need to leave our Christian bubbles and our comfort zones if we are to develop our spiritual muscles and grow. Jesus also declares that he has “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen” (10.16). In the vitally significant context of Jesus laying down his life in sacrifice and then resuming life through his resurrection, we are here reminded of Jesus’ purpose that reaches out not only to his own Jewish ‘sheep’, but also to others. As Jesus’ followers we inherit his longing to gather in the multitudes of all peoples everywhere that they may join us as ‘one flock with one shepherd’ (10.16). Jewish and Gentile sheep, Christians of every nation and people, share the same one shepherd and form together the one church of God.
The Door and the Good Shepherd
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a) The door (10.7)
Only through Jesus should we seek to enter into life. Those who try, without Jesus, to gain entrance into God’s people and his church  turn out to be false in their life and ministry. On the other hand, Jesus assures us that those who come through him “will be saved” (10.9). Through Jesus and him alone God gives us true light and life. He alone saves us from every evil and delivers us from the baleful influence of the world around us. Even with ferociously hungry wild animals threatening us, we can know the shepherd’s safe-keeping. Only through Jesus can we truly enter the loving fellowship, life and teaching of the church sheepfold. And it is with him going before us that we can dare to move out into the mountainous and dangerous world.
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b) The good shepherd ((10.11/14)
Let us remind ourselves of what we have already noted. As the good shepherd Jesus confronts the dangers on our behalf, laying down his life for our salvation and then taking it up again in life-giving resurrection. In his position as our shepherd he knows us each one by name in a wonderfully intimate personal relationship. He graciously brings us into the glorious palace of his church and sheepfold, also leading us from in front when he drives us out of our comfort zones into the dangers of life in the world. He constantly speaks to us and we therefore know and recognise his voice. How important it is to have such a relationship with him that we can distinguish between his voice and the tempting voice of the Devil, that of our own desires or any false prophecies which may be shared with us. As we walk through life, Jesus goes before us to lead us into green pastures to graze and feed.
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Reactions

Once again the people are uncertain how to react to Jesus. Some accused him of being demon-possessed because his teaching seemed unacceptably radical. Others remembered how he had given sight to the man born blind. They observed that a demon could never open blind eyes (10.19-21). Teaching and preaching about Jesus stirs up opposite responses. In the fearful days of the Soviet Union I once asked an old lady how people reacted when she preached openly in the crowded buses. “But you know how people react! You know your Bible”, she replied. “What a stupid question! It is always the same – some believe and some don’t”. How true! So let us not be too worried if some reject our witness to Jesus, but rejoice in those who do come into faith and new life!
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With Jesus the blind shall see (John 9.13-41)

With Jesus the blind shall see (John 9.13-41)

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Thus far John 9 has concentrated on the actual miracle of Jesus giving sight to the blind man, and ordinary people’s response. John shows how some accepted the miracle while others doubted the veracity of it (9.8/9). So now they seek to settle the matter by bringing the blind man to the religious authorities, the Pharisees (9.13). With all their training in rabbinic studies and their knowledge of the Bible the Pharisees would surely know the truth!
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The Pharisees

Before the introduction of the Pharisees into the story no mention had been made that Jesus had worked his miraculous sign on the Sabbath. But with the Pharisees this immediately becomes the central issue (9.14). They did ask the formerly blind man how he had regained his sight, but then quickly came back to what was for them the key question, the Sabbath. They were not at all interested in the amazing life-giving and enlightening ministry of Jesus. They also failed to rejoice with the man born blind. What a life-transforming thrill that suddenly he could see!
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Of course they were absolutely right to teach and observe the Sabbath. Throughout Israel’s history the Sabbath had been the touch-stone of obedience to the revealed Word of the Lord and his commandments. True faith and holiness went together with observation of Sabbath. With the Oral Torah the Pharisees had however added various legalistic out-workings to the biblical command.
They were also entirely correct to live as Moses’ disciples (9.28/29), but sadly for them this went together with rejection of Jesus. They wanted to follow the Torah/Law as given through Moses, but did not believe in Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promise to Moses to send another prophet like Moses with ‘God’s words in his mouth’ (Deuteronomy 18.15-19). They therefore failed to follow God’s command, “You must listen to him.” (Deuteronomy 18.15).
So the Pharisees had a good foundation, but remained blind to anything beyond it. They were like someone who has learned their tables, but fails to see that mathematics has anything more to learn. They possessed a true and good foundation, but were blind to any possibility of building further on it.
Actually, like the ordinary people in 9.8/9, division ruled the day. Some reacted positively to Jesus’ miraculous sign, while others rejected it. Likewise some of the Pharisees rejected Jesus because he did the miracle on the Sabbath, while others saw that someone doing such miraculous signs could not possibly be just a sinner (9.16). The good news of Jesus as Lord demands a choice either of commitment to him or rejection.
The parents
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For further evidence concerning whether the man had really been born blind they now call his parents (9.18). With the parents a new element comes into the story – fear! The parents evidently understood the danger. Should they publicly declared that their son had indeed been born blind and had been  given sight by Jesus?  Is he therefore at least a prophet or even the long-awaited Messiah? Such a confession of faith in Jesus would lead to excommunication with all its fearful social and economic consequences. To save their own skin, they stuck to the basic facts and refused to say anything about their own reactions. Yes, they say, ‘this is our son, he was born blind and he can now see’. But they carefully hide any knowledge they may have gained about how their son could now see and who opened his eyes (9.20/21). Their son already stands in the firing line, so they pass the buck – “he is of age; he will speak for himself”. They were wise in the face of the danger of persecution, but they failed miserably to confess faith in Jesus. Those of us who live comfortably in countries with religious freedom must ask ourselves how we would react if faced with suffering for our faith. Even in Britain today we face the challenge of cynical hostility if we stand openly for commitment to Jesus and biblical truth. Are we willing for such rejection or do we follow the example of the blind man’s parents?
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The blind man

From time to time in these blogs John’s emphasis on gradual growth into faith and discipleship comes clearly into view. For example, Nicodemus moves from coming to Jesus secretly at night (3.2) to a somewhat hesitant questioning of the Pharisees’ hatred of Jesus (7.50/51). Then finally Nicodemus comes out definitely for Jesus as he publicly accompanies Joseph of Aramathea in Jesus’ burial (19.38-40). So likewise the blind man comes step by step into faith in Jesus. At first he knows he has been given sight, but he seems to know nothing about who it was who worked the miracle for him. John 9.1-12 concludes with the devastating words, “I don’t know”. Later he confesses that Jesus is a prophet (9.17) and opposes the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus is a sinner. He bravely adds that Jesus has been sent by God (9.30-33). Finally his eyes are opened to Jesus’ messianic claims and he declares, “Lord, I believe” and he fell on his knees before Jesus (9.35-38). In the process of his coming to definite faith, the formerly blind man suffers the Pharisees’ declaration of excommunication, but this does not deter him from confessing Jesus and worshiping him.
The blind and the seeing (9.40/41)

In our multi-cultural and multi-faith society Jesus’ words can easily be misunderstood. He is not attacking people who have a sure faith in him as the Son of God and Messiah, for he readily accepts the faith confession of the formerly blind man (9.38). His purpose in coming into this world is that the blind may begin to see (9.39). Jesus continually encourages people to believe in him with a sure faith. But as believers in Jesus we should never allow ourselves to sink into the stagnant rut where we proudly think we see and therefore no longer grow in our faith. The all-glorious God is far greater than anything we may already have apprehended. And the Word of God in the Scriptures contains riches and depths we have not yet fathomed. Our understanding of the Lord must always lack perfection, for as human-beings we inherit the corruption and inadequacies of all humanity. We also see the truth of the Lord through the eyes of our particular ethnic background and culture – and even British culture might just contain a modicum of sin and corruption!
Nevertheless we rejoice in the truth of what the Lord has revealed to us, while we still acknowledge our blindness. We desperately need Jesus’ Holy Spirit to grant true sight to our blind eyes, to correct us in our faith and to lead us forward in spiritual growth. So Jesus states that, “if you say that ‘we are seeing’, your sin remains.” But in contrast, Jesus says, ‘if you were blind, you would not have sin’.” What then should be our attitude in our multi-faith context? We should be characterised by assurance of truth, openness to correction and hunger for growth in faith and understanding.
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P.S. Christmas is coming! How about giving some of our books as presents this year? Do get hold of Elizabeth’s life story “God can be Trusted” and my most recent book “Storytelling”.

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Who sinned? (John 9.1-12)

The light of the world

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In Jesus’ verbal teaching in 8.12ff. he began with the key affirmation that he is “the light of the world” (8.12). Now in chapter 9 this verbal teaching is followed by visible teaching through the miracle of giving sight to the man born blind. This visible teaching also starts with the declaration that Jesus is the light of the world (9.5). Through our sin we are all blinded to the glorious hope of abundant and eternal life through Jesus. We all therefore need this same miracle whereby Jesus illuminates our minds and hearts. Indeed, our whole society struggles with rampant evils to which they have no adequate answers. How we long therefore that people in their multitudes would turn to Jesus in faith and trust him to bring light into our darkness! The call to evangelistic witness presses upon us.
The works of God (9.3-5)
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The word ‘must’ (9.4) underlines that in God’s work we are not presented with some voluntary option which we may chose to observe or ignore. The call of Almighty God and the desperate needs of people around us make God’s work absolutely compulsory. Like Jesus himself when he was sent to share God’s life and light with the Samaritan woman, we ‘must’ be able to say that our “food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (4.34). Doing his work is our ‘meat and drink’. Using the picture of day and night, Jesus foresees the time when the world will become so dark that any light-giving witness will become impossible. Already the writing is on the wall. Fierce persecution was already building up (e.g. 8.58, 9.22). So he urges his disciples that he and they together (note his use of “we” in 9.4) must bring his light to the world as long as day-light continues (9.4). Typically, Jesus desires to work with and through his disciples, rather than doing the work of God on his own.
Jesus gives sight to the blind (9.6-11)
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Speculation abounds as to why Jesus spat on the ground, made mud with his saliva and anointed the blind man’s eyes. Was it to underline the spectacular nature of the miracle? Did it help the blind man believe that Jesus could actually heal him, although he had been blind from birth? We have to confess that we don’t know what was in Jesus’ mind.
While the mud and saliva came entirely from Jesus with no active participation from the blind man, washing in the pool of Siloam required the blind man’s obedience and faith. This reminds us of Elisha healing Naaman of his leprosy in 2 Kings 5. Naaman too was told to wash seven times in the River Jordan as the condition and means of his healing. Of course both Elisha and Jesus could have brought healing without Naaman or the blind man doing anything themselves, but they were very aware of the benefit that comes from our playing a small part in our healing. Our act of faith complements God’s supreme love and grace.
Why? Who sinned? (9.1-5)
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Even after already having walked with Jesus now for some time, the disciples’ theology remained sadly deficient. They assumed that suffering always has sin as its cause – and perhaps also that prosperity stems from faith and obedience.  Some times in the Old Testament history of Israel and throughout history God’s judgment may bring terrible suffering and God may honour his people’s faith and obedience with prosperity. But Jesus does not accept the simple formula:  suffering = sin, prosperity = faith. So, when the disciples ask Jesus whose sin lay behind the man’s blindness, Jesus strongly rejects any such theological belief system. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (9.3).

What then does lie behind the man’s blindness? With a stark “But” ((9.3) Jesus contrasts the disciples’ wrong understanding with God’s actual purpose. Jesus’ “so that” (9.3) shows that there is a divine purpose behind the man’s disability. It is “so that the works (plural) of God might be manifested (singular) in him”. Evidently the ‘works of God’ have a composite nature, all belonging together to one singular entity in the mind and will of God. In the context of John 8 and 9 all the works of God relate to Jesus’ function as the light of the world, bringing true enlightenment to the whole world.

Whereas in 8.12 we find a typical Johannine “I am” statement in the words “I am the light of the world”, here in 9.5 it comes within an ordinary sentence. Strangely, and in marked contrast, the blind man, faced with people’s uncertainty whether he is indeed the man who had been born blind, strikingly declares, “I am” (9.9). Normally in John’s Gospel the bold declaration “I am” is only found on Jesus’ lips. What then are we to understand by the blind man’s use of this divine title? Raymond Brown in his Anchor Bible commentary states unequivocally that “this is an instance of a purely secular use of the phrase”. D.A.Carson just translates the bald statement “I am” as “I am the man” and ignores the problem of its apparent divine claim. Quite possibly Brown and Carson are right not even to think of or consider any suggestion that the man born blind now adopts Jesus’ divine title because he is now healed and by faith united with Jesus, the perfect “I am”. But, in any case, the striking likeness to Jesus’ “I am” statements compels us to think seriously about it.

Conclusion
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When suffering afflicts us, we should firmly reject the ‘blame game’ which has become so common in our time. But the question “why?” springs easily into our minds and needs to be answered. In the case of this man born blind Jesus declares that his disability had the aim of manifesting the work of God. In our pain we need to ask ourselves how we can show forth the love, grace and enlightening glory of God through our attitudes and life. In the will of God our suffering never lacks purpose, however unjust and senseless it may appear to us.
“I am the light of the world” (John 8.12 and 9.5) – “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5.14).
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