While I would agree with the statements of Ray's answer, that Jesus is giving himself "breathing room" and is setting up (and continuing a larger point) arguments for his deity, I also believe that this text uses a cutting pun that is revealed in a broader examination of the text's context as well as the five separate Hebrew meanings of the word "god." What follows is a portion of a masters term paper on this very passage, hence the length. (If you're interested, i can pass along the other 50+ pages). For those looking for the 'quick and dirty' response, skip down to the section "John 10:34-36 – “I said you are gods."
Analysis of 8:48-10:42
John 8:48-59 – Jesus superiority to Abraham, and threats to stone Him
Our context opens with conflict. In truth, the context here could be explored in 8:39-47 to see Jesus’ counter accusations, and then in 8:31-38 to see the development of the topic of Abraham in the conversation or even further back following connective statements; however, for the sake of not attempting a dissertation prematurely, this section has been chosen as a representative bookend to our passage. It represents the most pointed beginning to the rising conflict that we will see yet again in chapter 10. Our text begins with a conversation between Jesus and an unidentified “we.” While it might seem logical to stop in 8:31 to determine the identity, given that this is the closest identification of His audience, we will come to a dilemma: How can those who believe in him in verse 31 be accusing him of having a demon in 8:48? Following the conversation further back we see that this phrase is meant more as an aside to those who have believed him who are in the midst of a crowd, a crowd that contains some number of Pharisees (8:13) and are making antagonistic remarks that are very consistent with the words of 8:48. Therefore, our scene develops with the characters of Jesus and a crowd of Jews containing Pharisees, but where does the scene take place?
To determine a geographical and temporal setting we must continue our search backwards in the text until we arrive in the treasury of Jerusalem (8:20) after having left Galilee half-way through the Feast of Booths (7:14). Jesus’ choice to return to Jerusalem is not one that was chosen lightly. His travel to Jerusalem will mark the beginning of His long-awaited “hour” (2:4, 7:6, 30). His only ministry outside of Jerusalem after this will be in Bethany with Lazarus’ family (11-12:11). After entering the city, he is accused of having a demon (7:20), suffers an attempted arrest (7:32), and sees divisions as the result of His teaching (7:40-52); His hour is indeed at hand.
As a part of this rising conflict, Jesus enters the dialogue of 8:48-59. Jesus’ point can be indicated on the lips of the audience: “Are you greater that our father Abraham?” and Jesus’ subsequent reply, “Before Abraham was, I am.” John’s usage of ἐγὼ εἰμί here without a supplied predicate or implied predicate demands attention. Where other usages of this phrase have been questioned concerning their implication of Jesus’ claim to be the “I AM,” this passage’s implication is rarely questioned by scholars. If one does not accept this view, they are still faced with the question, “If Jesus is not being stoned for claiming to be God, for what sin are they attempting to stone him in connection to this phrase?”
John 9:1-7 – Jesus heals a man born blind
A theological error in the Biblical setting, as well as the modern setting, is central to the narrative concerning the man born blind; being the thought that “sin and suffering are intimately connected.” The disciples and Pharisees (9:34), like much of the culture of that day, held this opinion, and their question concerning this spawns the healing encounter. While in a broad theological sense it could be said that they are wrestling with the implication and significance of the Fall, it could also be said that they have failed to take into account the entirety of the counsel of the scriptures (Job, and to the error today, Galatians 4:13, 2 Corinthians 12:7). While Jesus does not disavow a general connection between sin and suffering, he completely refutes a specific connection on the individual level between the two. This teaching was derived from secular and religious sources: The Greco-Roman culture taught that the gods and Fate inflicted maladies on those who countered their will; and some Rabbis taught that childlessness was due to sin, even going so far as to speculate on the specific sin of Job’s sons that resulted in their death. John’s usage of ἐπέχρισεν (anoint) has been speculated, given his common use of double entendre, to draw the reader to the focus on the healing property given the ‘anointing’ aspect of other healing events (Mark 6:13, 17, Luke 7:18, 46). Finally, the passage ends with a bit of a word play; the Sent One sends the blind man to the Sent Pool. We are reminded here of another pool, with no intrinsic power to heal, to whom Jesus sent another man; that being Bethesda (5:1-9). Like then, without “the Sent One,” the water means nothing, but rather that God has spoken is all that matters.
John 9:8-23 – Primary investigations into the healing
There are three primary investigations: the neighbors, the Pharisees’ questioning of the man, and then their questioning of the family. The man’s own neighbors find it so impossible to believe that they offer the counter argument that the blind man is missing and that a new man, looking like the first, has come. Perhaps this convoluted scenario is prompted by the assumption that this is absolutely impossible (9:32). The confused populace desires insight into this matter and, therefore, goes to their local religious leaders. No intended harm must be assumed on the part of the neighbors – at the very least, not from the text. Had they intended a legal proceeding against the man, the Pharisees would not be the proper ‘court’ to which to appeal.
As we look to the trial of the blind man before the Pharisees, the word οἶδα (blind) will be repeated throughout the dealing, not only in describing the event, but also on the mouth of Jesus to teach and rebuke in the midst of the event (9:12, 20-21,24-25, 29-31). The Pharisees’ hearing of the event sparks a controversy primarily concerning interpretation of the law: Does Jesus break the Sabbath by healing? The text records that this spawns a division among the Pharisees. What is truly ironic concerning the passage and should not be missed (and in fact Jesus uses later on) is that those with sight are going to a man born blind for guidance, a man who in fact, according to the text, had never physically seen Jesus.
Finally the Pharisees arrive among the family of the man born blind, having apparently fallen into the convoluted explanation of some of the neighbors. John’s usage of ἐφώνησαν not only signifies a transition from one scene to the other, but also invokes images of the power and influence at the Pharisees’ disposal. The parents confirm what they would be expert witnesses in, the state of the child at birth, but, due to the implications of the questions concerning their son’s opinion of Jesus, John informs us of the mental acts of the parents, that they did not answer for fear of the actions of the Pharisees. To the growing population of believers to whom John is writing, this passage concerning parents who refuse to believe along with their son may have been all the more applicable as they faced similar hardships.
John 9:24-34 – Verdict of the Pharisees
Three questions are begged in this section: 1) Is Jesus a sinner, having broken the Law concerning the Sabbath? 2) Are the Pharisees truly disciples of Moses? 3) What is Jesus’ true nature? The dilemma of final questioning is established quickly; the man born blind and the Pharisees are at odds over the most simple of questions: Is Jesus a sinner? The Pharisees establish their position that Jesus is a sinner rather contemptuously, referring to Jesus not by name, but merely as ἄνθρωπος, Sadly, the man born blind comes “with a knife to a gun fight,” responding by contradicting their wisdom and establishing “merely” his testimony as contrary evidence. The Pharisees again enter into the same line of questioning, causing one to take pause. Why would one ask the same question repeatedly? Are the Pharisees hard of hearing?; if not, then are they attempting to trap the man in some slip up in his testimony? Surely this would be below such a court! With the same sarcasm here demonstrated, the man born blind changes his cordial dialogue and employs a mastery of sarcasm and replies by asking if perhaps they harbored some secret desire to become followers of Christ themselves and were, therefore, wishing to hear his story again.
They retort that this man is a disciple of Jesus, but that they are, in fact, disciples of Moses, a “fact” that John seems to question. In reference to the religious leaders, John cites Jesus in 5:45-47 by stating that if they were truly Moses’ disciples they would have believed Jesus. Further, Keener makes the argument that, Hillel, the founder of the dominant Pharisaic tradition of John’s day, believed that those who were truly disciples of Aaron (and by connection, Moses) were those who loved their fellow man and drew them near to the Torah, versus those who thrust them away. Finally, the blind man must set the record straight concerning the origin of Jesus’ coming, an irony not lost on him (9:30). His argument is a simple one – in fact overly simplistic – but is effective in communicating his point. Certainly we should not derive a theology from this man’s words that all things of benefit that are spiritually derived are therefore from God (2 Thes. 2:9). Nevertheless, his point is made: Jesus is doing the will of God, if He was not from God, he could do nothing; and with this the Pharisees have the answer they desire. The Pharisees have prejudged Jesus as a sinner, and now this man has unequivocally identified with Him. By virtue of their logic, the man born blind has called God a sinner, giving them ample evidence to cast him out of the synagogue.
John 9:35-41 – Verdict of Jesus
Jesus’ involvement then is two-fold: to accept the rejected man, and to reject those that cast him out; he does so by way of a play on words with regard to blindness. To the man born blind, he has seen his redemption, the Son of Man, the Coming One, the one lifted up to heal, to judge and reward, and the one who comes to do the will of the Father (1:51, 3:14, 5:27, 6:27, 8:28). On the other hand, those who see, are declared blind to this fact; and having the capability to see, yet choosing to be blind to God’s redemption from sin, means they are still in their sin.
John 10:1-6 – Jesus the true shepherd, not a stranger
Jesus here enters into a παροιμία (figure of speech, allegory, parable), utilizing the imagery of sheep. The parables treatment of the sheep should perhaps be read in light of the treatment of the Pharisees of the blind man. John’s commentary that the crowd did not understand should not be brushed aside quickly given the context. The phrase, “ἀμὴν, ἀμὴν,” is used almost exclusively throughout John’s gospel to introduce a solemn declaration concerning Jesus and his purpose, causing us all the more to take pause at what Jesus is revealing in this section, as well as the one to follow.
John 10:7-21 – Jesus expands and explains; I am the good shepherd
Within this section we see an extended metaphor for God’s people in terms of shepherding. Shepherding was a common metaphor for the relationship between God’s people and Israel used in the Prophets and Wisdom literature (Isaiah 40:11, Psalm 23). In the context of Jesus speaking to an urban crowd and of John writing to a large and mixed audience throughout the empire, the question arises: Why would Jesus, and later John, refer to Him in terms of one of the most universally despised occupations? The widespread perception of these individuals was one in which they were viewed as being rough, unscrupulous, and in some cases, thieves. Certainly Jesus and John have a very pointed reason for including such a literary device. It has been stated in much of scholarship that Jesus leans heavily on Ezekiel 34. What follows is a basic comparison:
10:1-6 – False shepherd vs. the true shepherd
10:7-10 – He is the true shepherd; all others are robbers
10:11-13 – He is the good shepherd who lays down his life; the others do not care for the sheep
10:14-18 – He is the good shepherd who knows his own and who will seek them out
34:1-10 – Prophecy against the shepherd of Israel for their mistreatment
34:11-16 – God Himself will become the shepherd to seek and save
34:17-24 – God himself will judge amongst his flock concerning who muddies the waters, tramples the grass, and between the weak and abusive sheep
Therefore, we see that common to both are the following: evil shepherds who abuse (by action or neglect) the flock for their own gain and safety; evil shepherds are rejected; a new God-approved shepherd is introduced, and this “Good Shepherd” cares for the flock and judges rightly. If this passage is in mind in Jesus’ telling of the parable, then what remains to be discussed is how these individuals should be seen. Jesus clearly indicates himself as the Good Shepherd. The evil shepherds who abuse the flock (given the context of the abuse of the blind man) could be easily seen as the Pharisees, as Jesus’ rejection of their ruling in verse 41 would incline that he has rejected them. A few outliers remain: What of Ezekiel’s abusive sheep, and what of David as the shepherd? Yet again, it must be stressed that while we cannot read post-Jamnian practices into the pre-Jaminian world, is it too far a stretch to believe that Jesus, while obviously borrowing from Ezekiel, does not also have in mind the whole text; and likewise his reader; in other words, is what we see here a nascent ‘remez’ usage, perhaps in a far more biblically faithful fashion than it would later be used? Given the nature of the Pharisees’ treatment of the people of their day (Matt. 23:4 and the man born blind, and the lame man at the Pool of Bethesda), it is not hard to imagine that Jesus has these individuals in view concerning people who make it difficult for his people to be ‘nourished.’ Given Ezekiel’s authorship after the deportation to Babylon in 597 BCE, his reference is clearly not to the literal David, but to one of David’s line, allowing this shepherd to be Jesus. Zechariah also offers an extensive shepherding metaphor, but for the sake of brevity it will not be discussed here. It should be mentioned that in the treatment of these passages few commentators give it the place of Ezekiel in consideration, although fascinating parallels abound in that text as well.
Given the preceding context of 10:1-6, that Jesus’ sheep ‘know his voice’ (vs. 4)
and the Pharisees cannot comprehend Him, it is more than a subtle implication that they are not of his flock – an enormous statement given that to which Jesus has just alluded: that He is the good shepherd of God’s flock, therefore to be outside of His flock is to be outside of God’s people. Jesus’ words cause a division among the people: some agree with the man born blind’s conclusion that this man cannot have a demon and that He has come from God while others remain steadfast in their condemnation.
John 10:22-23 – Location and Time
We are now moved to the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah, the celebration of the purification and rededication of the temple by Judas Maccabeus on December 25, 165 BCE after its capture, plundering and defiling by the Syrians three years earlier. Jesus returns to the Temple grounds where he would often teach and preach. Given the time of year, his presence in the covered colonnade of Solomon makes sense within the meteorological context; and John points this out, given that this is the area where the first believers would gather.
John 10:24-30 – Inquiry, Response and pronouncement
While Jesus’ conversations concerning the blind man and his parables concerning the Good Shepherd and this context are separated by some unstated amount of time (of what length there is no telling), John’s placement of the two events and the Pharisees’ continued questioning tie the texts together in theme; and furthermore, Jesus continues using the flock analogy to teach in this section (10:26-27), so we should hesitate to put asunder what Jesus and John have joined together. The question remains, in this new scene does the audience remain the same? Perhaps the question they ask in verse 24 informs us as they request to be told παρρησία (plainly) if he is the Messiah which is somewhat the contrary of παροιμία (parable, “hidden saying”) in verse 6. While it may be impossible to determine the audience as remaining the Jews and the Pharisees who had issued judgment against the man born blind in the previous scene, it is certainly not impossible and perhaps likely.
Here Jesus plainly states what we have alluded to previously in that they do not hear and believe Jesus because they are not a part of God’s flock (10:26). Here, in fact, Jesus’ indictment against them is all the more strong, cutting them off from eternal life (10:28). Jesus ends with the pronouncement that will be central to the rising conflict in the next section: “I and the Father are one.” The word ‘one’ here is the neuter form hen, versus the masculine form heis, implying unity in action more than unity in person. While it might be tempting then to see this in a non-Trinitarian light, the opposite is in fact the case. Jesus is not the same person as the Father; therefore, we see Jesus praying to Him and being commissioned by Him. While not being one single person, they are rather singularly one in purpose and action, as only one unified being can be; therefore this verse does not stand against Trinitarian theology, but stands rather squarely in support of it.
John 10:31- 33 – The rising conflict
No matter what the modern interpreters’ confusion may be concerning Jesus’ proclamation, the crowds’ understanding is telling – they believe that he is making himself God. Jesus uses a response that establishes the contrast in the situation: the mob attempts to stone him vs. Jesus, who has done good works. Yet given the context of the holiday, it is no small charge that they bring against him. Antiochus IV Ephiphanes, the man whom Hanukkah celebrated deliverance from, claimed himself to be a deity and was successful in causing some Jews to fall away and follow him. Therefore the claim against Jesus that he was “making himself God” was in part to exploit the Jewish nationalism of the ceremony that was being celebrated.
John 10:34-36 – “I said you are gods”
According to most commentators, Jesus now enters into an in-depth etymological study of the word “god” with an angry crowd of individuals holding stones. If this summation seems preposterous, perhaps it is deserved. While Jesus may veil his meaning within this etymological argument (as he has recently veiled his deity within a rather vague declaration), his point is wholly other. To argue the contrary is to ignore the context of the passage and the passage that Jesus quotes. Central here is Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 82, let us again compare:
Vs. 13-34 – The respected rulers/judges of Israel gather and make a series of unjust judgments of a formerly afflicted and destitute man who walked about in darkness, who cannot make arguments on their level
Vs. 35-10:21 – Jesus arises and makes judgments against them
Vs.1 - God takes his place among the gods/rulers/judges to hold judgment
Vs. 2 – Rebuke of unjust judgment
Vs. 3-4 – Protect, defend, and preserve justice of the weak, fatherless, afflicted, and destitute
Vs. 5 – These have no knowledge or understanding and walk about in darkness
Vs. 6-7 – “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the most high” but you will die
Vs. 8 – God arise and make your judgment
If the context of this passage is truly the totality of chapters 9-10 and further, it is impossible to escape the thematic connection between these verses. If Jesus is not intending the entirety of the context of Psalm 82, then, in fact, the only option remaining is a bizarre veiled attempt to save his life for the time being by means of an etymological study. Alternatively, if we see this text as a part of a large string of rebukes in which Jesus has rejected the ruling of the rulers, called them spiritually blind and remaining in their sin, rejected them from God’s flock, and called them thieves and cowardly hirelings, is it too hard to accept that Jesus and John culminate this pericope with a reference to the Psalms that so succinctly restates not only their sin but also they’re judgment? Perhaps Ridderbos misses the mark most completely; “The assumption is then that the “gods” in the Psalm are judges, and point to Jesus as the coming world judge, the role in which he often reveals himself in John. But this view is not supported in the text. There is no echo here [in John 10] of the judicial role of those addressed in Psalm 82…” In this we agree: There is no echo of judicial judgment, only because of the blaring loudness of chapter 9 that would drown out such an echo. In conclusion, approaching this text from a primarily etymological standpoint would be akin to approaching a Van Gogh painting from the range of one inch; you would have a great appreciation for that one inch, and in the process would miss the entire beauty and subject matter of the work. Is this a plain declaration of Jesus’ divinity? No, but it is equally not an argument of primarily semantics. If we allow the scriptures to interpret the scriptures and apply the premise that this is, in fact, the context of a pronouncement saying therefore, “designed to epitomize a key aspect of [Jesus’] life or teaching,” Jesus’ self-identification with the Father of Psalm 82 who rebukes the leader, as he just has, ties seamlessly with his proclamation of 10:30: “I and the Father are one.” Indeed, the scriptures cannot be broken; God is God, and man is still unjust. Greater study will be given to the word “god” in both Psalm 82 and John 10 in the coming fourth section. Jesus moves on to make it clear that they are attempting to stone one who has been consecrated or sanctified by God himself, which could be an ambiguous reference, in the context of the celebration of Hanukkah and of the consecration of the Temple, to the fact that Jesus is, in fact, the new Temple (2:21).
John 10:37-39 – Jesus appeals to his works
If the crowds will not accept his words, what is there left for them to accept but his actions, his actions that remain in keeping with the will of the Father? Jesus makes no claims that his relationship with the Father is based on His works, but rather the precise opposite: they flow from his identity in the Father. In these words the building controversies of chapters 5-10 come to an end, albeit an incomplete end. He pleads that they will shed their blindness and see his good works, to see his source, and to see the character of his coming; but they remain blind and worse in their blindness their hatred becomes stronger, and they attempt to arrest him.
John 10:40-42 – What did John say of Jesus?
Jesus escapes the scene to cross the Jordan and return to where his public ministry had begun; this marks the termination of his public ministry until the Passion. An interesting reflection is made by the author here, a comparison between John the Baptist and Jesus and John’s testimony of him. The author claims that what John had said of Jesus was true, but what had he said? John made the claim that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away sin (1:29), came from Heaven (2:31), would not be received (2:32), is the giver of Eternal life (2:36), but perhaps most interestingly given our context, John claimed that Jesus was the one who stood in the midst of the Pharisees that they did not know (1:26).