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A Winter Walk

Raise your hand if you knew that Jesus went for a walk on Hanukkah. I didn’t either. A few days ago, I stumbled across a rather inconspicuous footnote attached to John 10:22.

The setting of this passage is Dedication Day, which, according to the footnote, is the ancestor of Hanukkah. Jewish festivals follow a lunisolar calendar, so the dates change from year to year. According to some, the date that year would have been equivalent to December 20. Dedication Day and Hanukkah memorialize the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple in 165 BC after a Jewish rebellion that essentially established an autonomous Israelite kingdom for the first time since the fall of both Israelite monarchies in the Old Testament.

John 10:22–23 in the NIV1984 reads: “It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” This structure was a covered walkway that was original to Solomon’s time and had survived the destruction as detailed in 2 Kings 25. The rest of the temple complex had been rebuilt by Ezra  and then refurbished by Herod the Great. The weather was perhaps cold and rainy, and Jesus wanted to go for a walk somewhere that was protected from the elements but still outdoors. This activity places Jesus in a very human position; he wanted to go for a relaxing stroll through quaint ruins. It is possible that Jesus wanted to be alone to pray, but, while that is logical, it is not specified in the passage.

The next verse pictures a group of Jews who interrupt Jesus’ alone time to ask him: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” This question takes on greater significance in the light of Dedication Day, a festival that marks an Israelite military victory and political freedom. During this day, above of all days, every Jew would have been painfully aware that their country was being ruled by Rome, a foreign, often brutal, empire. They would also be painfully aware that holiness and righteousness had not been a priority of the Jewish-ruled country that preceded Rome’s invasion. The roughly one-hundred-year lifespan of that Jewish nation often saw Jews executing other Jews, sometimes by crucifixion. In any case, at this point in the New Testament, most Jews were unified in their desire to be ruled once again by fellow countrymen. Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker and empowered man of God had led many people to conjecture that he might be the Christ, a messiah to regain Israelite political prestige. The Jews had seen Jesus’ supernatural feats but were confused by his vague behavior and wanted a straight answer: “If you are the Christ, tell us.” However, Jesus’ lack of typical human ambition was abundantly clear. Jesus came in search of human souls.

In verses 25–26 Jesus declares that he has been telling them what they want to know and that his miracles should confirm his truth. But, the Jews refuse to believe because Jesus’ message doesn’t include political or military victories. Jesus explains that his sheep listen to his voice, but non-sheep do not believe. The Jews in this passage are not sheep. Who then can be sheep? Verse 27 gives the requirements for sheep. They must listen to Christ’s voice and follow him.

The next two verses have caused some controversy. It is sometimes said that these verses declare that salvation persists even through willful sinful behavior.  This seems to be a rather extreme view, but Christians who would espouse it would temper it with the concept that self-declared Christians who behave in immoral ways and die in their sin had never truly been Christians in the first place. That feels convoluted. Further, God wouldn’t keep someone in his family who doesn’t want to be there. Sheep can choose to stop following Christ’s voice. However, there is a shining paradigm in this over-simplistic concept; salvation in Christ is persistent and does remain even through the struggles of life. The opposite extreme to eternal security is that Christians are constantly shifting in and out of grace as they walk the path of human existence. This also seems unrealistic and uncharacteristic of God’s nature. It also runs contrary to many verses that support the perseverance of salvation. I remember having a conversation with a middle school student who was troubled that every sinful thought that crept into his mind disqualified him, momentarily, for heaven and that if he died during one of those instances he would go to hell. There must be an umbrella of grace that covers the heart of sincere, righteousness-seeking Christians. Where that umbrella ends surely falls within God’s purview so that the viability of salvation lies somewhere between eternal security and eternal insecurity. Christ looks for ways to keep his sheep, but the sheep ultimately retain free will. The plight of those who have never heard Christ’s message would dovetail here, but that is outside the scope of this verse. In short, sheep need to be finding other sheep.

Jesus’ purpose was always to find sheep who would listen and follow. Those sheep receive eternal life and attain a friendship with God because, according to verse 30, Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus’ audience then try to stone him. He has gone for a walk, has answered questions truthfully, and his reward is assault. The sheep should never think that the Shepherd doesn’t understand what it is to be human. We often have preconceived ideas about how the details of our lives should play out. Jesus, eventually died on a cross. His sheep follow him and can trust that God knows what he is doing and that every faithful soul is safe.

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