Occasionally someone says, ‘Show me proof that God exists and I will believe’. But will they? Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat (1966) wrote: ‘We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof we tend to want – scientifically and philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all – would not in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all.
‘For what we need to know is not just that God exists, but that there is a God right here in the thick of our day-to-day lives as we move around knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of this world. It is not objective proof of God’s existence we want, but the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle we are really after – and that also, I think, is the miracle we really get.’
In John chapter 10, verse 24 we read that the Jewish leaders pressed Jesus to answer their question: ‘If you are the Christ, tell us plainly’.
John tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication. The Jewish Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah, is an eight-day festival celebrating the rededication of the Temple after it had been desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes in 168BC. Furthermore, because candles that had been lit at the first festival had oil for just one day and yet kept burning for eight, it also was called the Festival of Lights, a time of rededication to God.
The question the Jewish leaders put to Jesus was one that was causing division in Jerusalem at the time (John 7:25ff). John writes that while there were those who believed in Jesus most of the Jewish leaders were antipathetic towards him (John 10:19-21).
But Jesus refused to be drawn. He knew a direct answer would not be heard by those who had already made up their minds and refused to acknowledge the true significance of the things he was doing – not least his recent giving sight to a man born blind (John 9:1-7).
‘I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep’ (John 10:25f).
Jesus identifies the emergence of two groups of people. There are those who are satisfied with their view of life and therefore don’t believe in Jesus: they refuse to look to the signs that point to his transcendental nature. On the other hand, there are those who view themselves and life very differently. They know their lives are empty and don’t measure up to their expectations. They are looking for life that is not just physically but spiritually satisfying, the kind of life that Jesus says he can offer; he promised the woman at a well in Samaria living water, welling up into eternal life (John 4:10, 14). Here in chapter 10, he calls this second group his sheep. He is the good shepherd who is willing to give his life for them.
As Jesus continues, he references what we might describe as three tests that reveal whether we are members of his flock.
‘My sheep hear my voice’ (10:27). Today there are all kinds of voices raising fears for the future. But many realize their concerns are not going to address the deeper needs of our souls. Another voice beckons – one that speaks to our hearts and opens up a personal relationship with the Good Shepherd who knows our name. He is the one to whom John the Apostle bears witness when he says: We beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
‘They follow me’ (10:27). John chapter 10 reveals Jesus’ words that he is the good shepherd who knows his sheep and cares for them. Furthermore and significantly, he is also known by the sheep (10:14). The imagery Jesus uses is that of a shepherd in the ancient world – one who guides and protects the sheep. Unlike the Australian ‘drover’ who drives a mob of sheep from behind with dogs keeping them together, the shepherd of Israel led the sheep to find good pasture and springs of water. The shepherd not only led but went amongst the sheep, keeping them together, protecting them from marauding animals.
It’s often said that God’s people are shut into a joyless lifestyle without freedom and fun. How different this is from Jesus’ imagery: his sheep follow him freely. They are not driven and beaten. Rather, their choice to follow is voluntary. They perceive that true life is to be found only in relationship with the Lord who loves them dearly. To quote Buechner again, ‘It is not objective proof of God’s existence we want, but the experience of God’s presence. That is the miracle we are really after …’
‘I give them eternal life’ (10:28). With the unprovoked war in Ukraine and injustices perpetrated in varying ways throughout the world, many are anxious about the future. Furthermore, with the pandemic that has been sweeping the world over the last two years, many are experiencing greater uncertainty and loneliness, and with it have become cynical about all forms of authority.
How comforting and truly strengthening it is to know that we can put our hand in the sure hand of the Lord. He not only knows us by name, he understands our concerns and our needs. With the American withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan in August last year and the sudden rise to power of the Taliban, stories are emerging of the miraculous way the Lord has cared for and is providing for his people.
Yes, some have died for their faith. But the uncertainties and injustices of this world awaken us to the greater depth of Jesus’ words, I give them eternal life, and they will never perish’ (10:38). No one can ever remove Jesus’ people from the security of their relationship with him. Why? Jesus answers: ‘My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand’ (10:29).
None of us knows where life with the Lord will take us. The path may not always be easy. But we can be assured of this, life with Jesus, even though it is eternal, will not be boring. Far from it. It will be a life unimaginable, far beyond anything we have ever dreamed: a life of beauty and goodness, love, laughter and joy.
A prayer. Almighty God, you alone can order the unruly wills and passions of sinful men and women. Help us so to love what you command and desire what you promise, that among the many and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys may be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
You may like to listen to He Will Hold Me Fast from Keith and Kristyn Getty.
© John G. Mason