Sometimes an easily-overlooked little phrase in the Bible carries profound meaning with great encouragement for faith.
We are familiar with our Lord Jesus saying, “I am the Good Shepherd” and this is a well-loved and well-known image for God. Many funerals have the 23rd Psalm read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul”, bringing consolation and hope to those gathered.
In John’s Gospel, where we find the Lord saying ”I am the Good Shepherd”, the text continues with his explanation of what this image means. The Lord says, “I am the gate of the sheep” and “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
But then, towards the end of this passage, there is a seemingly casual reference to the location where Jesus is speaking. This reference seems to be an aside on ‘geography’ but like so many parts of the scriptures, it is a reference that calls us to faith in the Lord’s sure word and promise.
The text says, “Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon”. This is the temple of the Israelites in Jerusalem. It is already significant that Jesus is in the temple teaching, but why mention the ‘portico of Solomon’?
If we were ancient Israelites from the time of Jesus, we would have known straight away how important this place was. The portico of Solomon was the place where the Israelite King would make official rulings over those brought before him. This was like his ‘judgement seat’ where the king would make public pronouncements.
So what pronouncement does ‘King Jesus’ make at this place? He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
This is his sure word and promise. This is his declaration of the grace given to us in baptismal faith. We are made the sheep of the Good Shepherd and from the portico of Solomon he uses the strongest of language: “I give them eternal life. They will never perish. No-one will snatch them out of MY hand.”
This word and promise of the Good Shepherd inspires St Pauls great witness in Romans 8: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is the word and promise that strengthens God’s people in the face of persecution, struggle and strife. The Good Shepherd who died and rose again, has gathered us into his flock, and continues to care for us, that we would “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”