Hands Up, Hands Down: Reflections on John 10:22-30
Hands Filled with Stones
The leaders are angered by these Messianic implications, but that is not what whips them into near murderous rage, with their hands picking up stones to stone him. What enrages them in John's gospel is Jesus' claim to be one with the Father (10:30). That's the point at which I picture their hands picking up the stones.
It takes a while for a whole crowd to get ready for a stoning. Everybody has to survey the available stones and choose the one that best fits their hand. They have to decide how many to pick up at one time.
Verses 22-29 are a build-up to the act of picking up stones. According to New Testament scholar John Ashton, there was no inherent blasphemy in claiming to be the Messiah. There were other messianic pretenders roughly contemporaneous with Jesus, and none of them was accused of blasphemy (241). The blasphemy charge would not have come from the Messianic claims as much as from the claim of identity with God. The title Son of God, while it appears in the synoptic gospels where it is related to the title Messiah, in John comes to constitute a claim to divinity. This is the claim that was blasphemous to the parent Jewish community (241). This scene may well reflect the synagogue's response to Johannine Christians' insistence on Jesus' divine status. (Asthon 242)
It seems likely that the full-blown Christology of the gospel of John emerged in stages. The affirmation of the pre-existence of Jesus would have gotten the early Christians evicted from the synagogues in shorter order than seems to have been the case. Says John Ashton, "Precisely at what point in the group's history it came to insist upon Jesus' divine status is impossible to determine. But had it done so from the outset it would not have lived any part of its history as a group of Christian Jews still revolving within the orbit of the faith of Israel" (242).
What was blasphemous to Jesus' opponents was good news to the community for whom the gospel of John was written. It was not a threat to their position and prestige, but a comfort in the midst of opposition. The shepherd will not permit anyone to seize or steal his sheep (10:10a). Says Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah, "No one will snatch them from my hand. Jesus will lose none of those given to him that have already been provided (6:37-40). Jesus is at one with the Father's will in this matter. Since the Father is greater than all in power, it is impossible that anyone could prise the sheep from God's strong hands." (Lincoln, 305-6)
The text doesn't explain why the leaders didn't stone him. He doesn't go on to say anything to placate them in verses 31-40. I picture them standing there holding their stones, trying to decide whether to start or not. It's like popcorn I would think. Once one kernel pops the rest are inevitable. But nobody's hand seems to lob a single stone at Jesus. The mysterious escape from their hands can only come from the Father who is not willing to allow the gift his Son brings to be snatched from his hands (10:29).
Jesus escapes (10:39), and gradually it's "hands down." Hands holding stones are lowered. Stones are dropped. He lives to teach, heal, and resurrect another day.
"Hands down," is a saying that has it origin in mid-19th-century horse-racing. When a horse jockey is nearing the finish line far ahead of the competition "with victory certain," he could drop his hands, relaxing his hold on the reins, and still win the race. By the late 19th century the phrase was being used in non-racing contexts to mean "without doubt or competition." That was "hands down" the best meal I've ever eaten. Or that was "hands down" the most talented group I've ever heard.
This Easter season we may be tempted to lift our hands in a shrug of despair or a gesture of surrender. At such times we remember that we affirm that Jesus Christ is God's Son and is one with the Father. We recall that we worship a "hands down" Savior. We drop the stones of unforgiveness and prejudice. We lift our hands in joyful celebration.
Singer-songwriter Natalie Grant, in the final verse of the anthem "In Christ Alone," offers these gorgeous lyrics for the season of Easter.
No power of hell, No scheme of man
Could ever pluck me, from his hand
Till he returns, or calls me home,
Here in the life of Christ I stand.
Hands down and hands up!
John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel
Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel According to John
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.