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John 10:1-10 and Biblical Interpretation
Mini reflection I gave at the current church I attend on Saturday, April 28
In some circles, John 10:1-10 is interpreted as meaning that anyone who doesn’t believe a set of specific theological beliefs, is going to spend the afterlife eternally suffering, especially since some people equate the word that is translated as abundantly in verse 10, with the afterlife. There are some wrinkles with that interpretation however.
1) Many of the theological beliefs that some deem as necessary for salvation, were later developments that occurred after decades or even centuries of debates. For instance, Christians were debating the correct formulation of Jesus being God and human for years.
And other beliefs, that some Christians consider nonnegotiable, such as biblical inerrancy, didn’t develop until after the Enlightenment. In fact, we are still having these theological debates even though they have allegedly been settled. So the idea that the author of John argues that heaven is only for those who follow a certain set of theological beliefs that weren’t even completely developed until later, is a bit of a stretch.
2) The focus solely on the afterlife, ignores a large swath of the gospels, including John. The book of John is believed by many but not all scholars, to be one of the last gospels written and its writing style is radically different from the other three. It is also heavy on the spiritual language and discussion about the afterlife. But even in John, the focus is not solely on the afterlife. This life matters as well. Jesus came to bring freedom and liberation not only in the afterlife but also in this one as well.
So what are some suggestions for grappling with this passage? 1) it’s important to remember the historical context. I believe by the time this book was written, possibly between 90-110 CE, the early Jesus movement was on its way to becoming a separate religious entity from Judaism. The Jesus community was roiled with debates between Gentile Jesus followers and Jewish Jesus followers and between Jesus followers and the larger Jewish community.
Conflicts within communities can be even more violent and harsh than conflicts between different communities. In that context, we can understand some of the harsh language about thieves and bandits and the us vs them framing. We can acknowledge the historical context and but then we need decide whether we want to replicate some of the harsh us vs them language used in the text.
2) When trying to interpret this passage in ways that are relevant to today, we should also take into account some of the larger themes in the gospels and the New Testament. While the original author didn’t necessarily have access to the other gospels and the New Testament as a whole. We do, and that is an asset.
As mentioned earlier, if we take a larger scale view of this passage, and incorporate the rest of the book of John as well as other parts of the New Testament, we notice that modern understandings of abundant life is much narrower than what the Biblical text portrays. Many present-day Christians focus on the afterlife while downplaying the importance of this life. But the gospels in general-including John-present a God who seeks to bring liberation and freedom in the here and now. God is depicted as one who seeks the predominantly nonviolent overthrowing of oppressive institutions in this life.
You might be asking, ok you talk a lot about what abundant life looks like, but what l what about the first half of the text? The author uses an us vs them framework and even in understanding the historical context, how can we interpret this passage in ways that don’t lead to the reinforcement of that mentality, which has led to violence throughout Christian history?
For me, instead of thinking, “ok what individuals or groups of people are preventing others from living an abundant life,” I think, what ideas, what fears, what beliefs, are antithetical to the gospels? What ideas, what fears, and what concepts are leading to the oppression of others?
That seems like a small mental move, but when you view specific ideas and beliefs as problematic, rather than just focusing on the individuals/groups who hold onto said beliefs and ideas, you can push back against what is causing harm without potentially repeating the cycle of violence by endorsing us vs them language.
For example, Christian nationalism has a lot of problematic ideas and beliefs. Those ideas are a distortion of the gospel and these ideas/beliefs contribute to violence and oppression, which in turn prevents queer people, trans people, people of color, and women, from having an abundant life. I have no qualms about saying that the ideas that comprise Christian nationalism are lies.
And it would be accurate to describe these ideas as bandits and thieves whose only purpose is to sew destruction. And while it is important to hold any individual politician accountable for reinforcing Christian nationalism, by voting them out or if they endorse violence, holding them legally accountable, the reality is that if we only focus on the individual, we aren’t actually dealing with the underlying violence of Christian nationalism.
Insert the name of any major Christian nationalist figure- yes we should ensure that they aren’t in political office, we should vote for alternatives, we should deplatform them on social media, but if we just focus on the individual and not on the underlying ideas, we aren’t going to make many inroads against Christian nationalism because there will be dozens of other people ready to take that individual’s place.
Passages like John 10:1-10 can be difficult to navigate, especially when some Christians argue that there is only one correct interpretation of the text and that interpretation involves condemning nonChristians or Christians who don’t believe the “right” thing to hell. But when it comes to the Bible, very rarely is there just one correct interpretation. Plus, we need to ask ourselves, is our interpretation doing more harm than good? And how can we faithfully grapple with interpreting these texts in ways that are relevant to our everyday life but that don't reinforce the cycle of violence?
Some questions for reflection:
How do you navigate interpreting difficult Biblical passages?
How do you interpret John 10:1-10?
Image: white desk, with in apple, flowers, sweater, and green apple. Text: When it comes to the Bible, very rarely is there just one correct interpretation.