22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah,* tell us plainly.’ 25Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.* 30The Father and I are one.’
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible tells us that the previous material, taking place at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles’ would have been in the Autumn. Now it is winter, and the Feast of Dedication, which happens in early December. Jesus is still in Jerusalem, but some time has passed. “The Jews” gather around him and ask a pointed question, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus says he has already told them and they do not believe. Does this remind you of the man who had been blind when they ask him again to explain what happened? He said, “I told you and you did not listen.” Now Jesus says, “I told you and you do not believe.” They are still spiritually blind, and it would seem, deaf as well.
The works that Jesus did in the Father’s name attested to who he was – but still they did not believe. If they had been his sheep they would have heard his voice and followed, but they were not. Jesus knows his sheep and they follow him, and he gives them eternal life. They have been given him by the Father – and no one can take away what is given by the Father.
Now those phrases raise questions for us: Could the religious leaders who are questioning Jesus not believe because they were not already his sheep? Or because they heard the Good News and closed their minds and rejected it. Were those who were his sheep predestined to be his followers, and others left out? This is one of those passages quoted by those who believe in predestination. But we, as Methodists, believe that God’s grace allows all to make their own decision as to whether to follow Him or not. We believe that God gives grace to all, and calls to all (We call this call to everyone “Prevenient Grace”). Those who make the choice to accept his grace, to follow, to believe, are his sheep (are Justified through his Justifying Grace, forgiven, and are reborn in the Spirit, so that the spiritual senses, “the eyes of the heart” are opened, and have the opportunity to then grow in grace). It is those believers who cannot be taken from Jesus, for they are given him through the Father’s grace and love. And we are given eternal life, in his grace and love, as followers of Jesus, as the sheep he keeps near his heart.
Jesus’ battle with the religious leaders continues – it is a battle over a profound question: In Jesus, does one experience the presence of God in the world? We, as Christians, believe that he is God in the flesh, the incarnation, and in him we experience God – in love and grace. That is the point John is making to his first century readers.