The Gospel of John – The Good Shepherd

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Jesus’ references here to a good shepherd and shepherding are pointed barbs at these hypocritical, self-serving figures. In this section, Jesus actually creates three separate metaphors; these are not meant to be understood as a single analogy. The first comes in verses 1 through 6, the second in verses 7 through 9, and the third in verses 10 through 18. In doing so, Jesus explains how He differs from the corrupt leaders He confronts. He also delivers His third and fourth ”I am” statements, out of seven in this gospel.

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The Good Shepherd and His Sheep

 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

1“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

19 The Jews who heard these words were again divided. 20 Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?”

21 But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

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Enter through the narrow gate

The story continues from healing the blind man

Jesus continues without pause from the end of His conversation with the Pharisees who disputed His healing of the man born blind in chapter 9. Here, again, Jesus uses the “Amen, amen” construction. This uses a word that has come from Aramaic is almost unchanged in many other languages. It is an expression of agreement or hopefulness when used at the end of a statement. When used at the beginning of a sentence, it implies that the speaker is presenting first-hand, absolute truth.

This is the first of three related-but-separate analogies Jesus will make using the concept of shepherding.

1. Thief and a robber

Jesus begins the first metaphor by stating that someone who climbs the wall of a sheep enclosure “is a thief and a robber.” In that era, multiple flocks of sheep would be housed in a single walled-in enclosure. The sides were high enough to prevent sheep from getting out, and wild animals from getting in. This structure would have a single opening—and this was the only intended place for the sheep to come in or out. Anyone attempting to get into the pen without using the single door was, by definition, up to no good, a thief or a robber.

In the verses that follow, Jesus will continue to explain that only the legitimate shepherd can come in and out, and only that shepherd is approved by the gatekeeper. This teaching also relies on the unique way sheep naturally learn to respond only to the voice of “their” shepherd, and not to others.

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The flock know the shepherd voice

As mentioned earlier the sheep pens of that era were constructed with relatively high walls and a single door. Individual shepherds were known by their flocks purely by voice. To get a particular shepherd’s flock out, all that shepherd needed to do was call. In response, his sheep—and only His sheep—would come out.

Because these pens were built in this way, there was no legitimate reason for anyone else to enter the pens. The single door was where approved shepherds would be allowed to come in and out, and where their flocks would enter and leave. The only reason someone would enter the pen by climbing the wall is so they could harm or steal sheep.

Jesus continues in the next verses to explain that He, and He alone, is the “approved” shepherd, and those sheep which are His recognise Him by His voice. Strangers and thieves won’t be recognised by the sheep.

Listen for the voice of Jesus and respond with “Here I am, Good Shepherd” and follow Him.

At this point, Jesus is not speaking about heaven. His analogy has a well-defined purpose, not directly related to salvation or attaining eternal life. Those who are His, as it pertains to everlasting life, cannot be stolen in the way a robber in this particular analogy would do. Rather, this symbol is about how and why certain people respond to the message of the gospel, and others do not.

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2. The gatekeeper or “the door of the sheep”

The gatekeeper was not merely minding the opening. There were often no physical barriers across that opening, since a gatekeeper was always on duty. To rest, or even to sleep, the gatekeeper would literally lay across the gap. This will be used in Jesus’ second metaphor, where He claims to be “the door of the sheep.”

The gatekeeper of the pen would ensure that only approved shepherds—those who had claim on a flock inside—could get in or out. Anyone trying to climb over the walls was, by definition, up to no good. Those allowed in by the gatekeeper were legitimately allowed to be there.

Multiple flocks would be kept in a single pen. As mentioned earlier, to get a particular flock out, all the shepherd had to do was call. The sheep, having been raised and cared for by that single person, would respond. Members of other flocks would not come in response to that voice.

Jesus uses this analogy in response to the religious leaders of Jerusalem, who stubbornly refuse to recognise His miracles and His message. In plain terms, these men don’t listen to His voice because they are not “His” flock. They are, as Jesus pointed out in other discussions, subjects of Satan (John 8:42–47).

These me did not listen to Jesus because they were not “His.” Those who belong to God recognise the voice of God. But, like sheep from a foreign flock, those who belong to the Devil don’t respond when called by Christ.

Jesus continues this analogy with two more analogies that flesh out the idea that Jesus is the one and only means of salvation, and that those who are part of God’s kingdom will recognise no other voice except Him.

Those who don’t listen to Jesus voice are, in plain terms, “owned” by someone else. As Jesus pointed out in prior conversations, such people actually belong to Satan (John 8:42–47).

This is the first of three separate analogies Jesus uses that involve shepherding. As the following paragraphs show, the men to whom He speaks—the same religious leaders who criticised His healing of a man born blind (John 9)—will predictably fail to get the point.

What’s the point?

Of course, as those not inclined to listen to Jesus in the first place, these men fail to grasp the point being made. Instead, as seen in later, they will try to write Him off as a babbling maniac.

Jesus has just finished comparing His ministry to the voice of a shepherd. 

3. I am the good shepherd

Now Jesus makes the third of seven “I am” statements found in the gospel of John. In these remarks, Jesus evokes the words spoken to Moses by God in Exodus 3:14. Jews of that era knew exactly what such claims implied—when Jesus used those words in reference to Abraham earlier, they interpreted it as blasphemy and tried to kill Him (John 8:58–59).

Here, Jesus makes a separate metaphor, which is only partly related to the one just completed. Since the doorkeeper would typically lay across the opening to rest or sleep. In that way, the gatekeeper very literally became “the door” of the sheep pen.

Here, Jesus is implying that He, and He alone, is the means by which God intends people to come to God. His comment in the next passage, in particular, is meant to state that the prior religious leaders of the people were not the “true” leaders God intended. This concept also echoes, at least subtly, the single door God placed on the ark built by Noah—the one and only doorway through which mankind was saved from the wrath of God (Genesis 6:16).

Legitimate authority in Jesus

Jesus continues to explain that, like the door—the gatekeeper—He is the one and only legitimate authority for the sheep. The religious leaders who have controlled Israel to that point are like those trying to sneak into the sheep pen, or calling to sheep which are not theirs. They are, spiritually, thieves and robbers.

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This analogy brings several layers of meaning. First and foremost, it is only through the door that the sheep can “be saved.” This uses a Greek term, sōthēsetai, which implies something being kept safe, healed, or rescued from destruction. This is very dramatic terminology for literal sheep, though the pen was their best protection from wild animals. Jesus’ statement, then, is unusually direct in its spiritual implications. Jesus is that door, and the only door, an idea often repeated in the New Testament (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Closely related to this, the door—Jesus, in this case—is what separates all sheep into two basic groups. Sheep are either “in” or “out”; they are “saved” or “unsaved.” There are no other categories, and no other options. This, also, supports the New Testament’s consistent teaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only means by which any person can be eternally saved.

Narrow is the gate to Heaven

Also, some interpreters see this as a reference to Jesus leading people out of Judaism and into its intended fulfillment, Christianity.

Everlasting life and spiritual abundance

Jesus begins His third and most detailed analogy. He has already compared the hypocritical, tradition-bound religious leaders to thieves. The purpose of a thief, so far as the flock is concerned, is only to wreak havoc; the robber causes mayhem for his own selfish gain. In the same way, ungodly people who claim to be spiritual cause suffering in others for the sake of their pride and greed (Titus 1:11; 1 Timothy 6:5).

In contrast, Jesus seeks to not just preserve life for the sheep, but to provide it. In the prior analogy, Jesus claimed that as the one and only door, He was the means by which a person could “be saved.” That Greek term, sōthēsetai, suggests rescue, protection, and healing. Here, Jesus deepens that claim by saying that His purpose is not only tied to life, but to an abundant life.

That “abundant” life means something more meaningful than material wealth and prosperity (Colossians 3:2–3; Matthew 6:25–32). It begins with salvation from an eternity of suffering the penalty of sin (Romans 6:23). An abundant life is, first and foremost, eternal life. The abundant life means gaining a heavenly perspective, leading to a growing trust and knowledge of God. It means blossoming into a life full of the fruit of the spirit. While false teachers and false religions offer shallow, temporary relief.

Only Jesus brings truly everlasting life and spiritual abundance.

Humility and sacrifice

A main point of this third analogy is that Jesus is the “good shepherd,” in contrast to those who have selfish interests at heart. Jesus comes to offer life, and does so with humility and self-sacrifice. Prior statements compared some religious leaders to thieves and robbers, who purposefully take advantage of the flock for their own gain.

Here, Jesus refers to those who serve the flock, in a sense, but who are not motivated by love and self-sacrifice. A hired shepherd, for instance, is inclined to run away when the sheep are under severe threat. That hired hand is only interested in the sheep so long as he benefits; when serving the sheep means personal risk, he abandons them.

This describes those who purposefully take advantage of others using spiritual deception.

But it also applies to those who “passively” take advantage, by claiming spiritual authority or privilege without the service or sacrifice that position entails.

Eternal life

This statement is also important for its connection to a famous statement made later in this chapter. Jesus will claim that the life He offers is eternal, secure, and absolute: “no one will snatch them out of my hand.” The verb used here, is harpazei. Later one He uses this exact same root word, differing only in tense: harpasei. As the one and only “good shepherd,” Jesus will never allow any of “His” sheep to be taken from Him. Period.

Jesus is willing to lay down His life for the sake of “His” sheep.

It is important for believers to recognise Jesus’ voice and follow only Him. He is “the door,” like the single narrow gap in the ancient sheep pen. All people—like all sheep—were either “in” or “out” of this door, and only those “in Christ” can be saved.

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Jesus also reiterates a point made in His first analogy related to shepherding (John 10:1–6). Ancient shepherds spent considerable time with their flocks, from the moment of a lamb’s birth. As such, sheep were acutely tuned to the voice of their shepherd, and only theirs. Sheep would instinctively ignore—or even flee from—the voice of a stranger. Jesus’ sheep, on the other hand, know His voice and respond to it. And, as a “good shepherd,” He knows every detail about those for whom He cares.

Jesus compares that closeness a shepherd has with his sheep and His intimacy with the relationship between God the Son and God the Father. This echoes other statements in the New Testament which imply that salvation through Jesus Christ brings us into an intimate family relationship with God (1 John 3:1; Romans 8:16–17).

Controversial comments from Jesus

The comments Jesus makes controversial to Jesus’ audience. Jesus is claiming to be the sole legitimate means of salvation for mankind (John 10:1–13), and even indicating that He will bring “other sheep,” meaning Gentiles, into this intimate relationship with God (John 10:14–16). Those remarks, in and of themselves, would have been tough for His critics to digest.

Jesus again refers to His impending death. This is a point over which even His own disciples argued (Mark 8:31–33). Jesus has already implied that He is willing to die for the sake of His spiritual “sheep,” as “the Good Shepherd” described earlier (John 10:10–14). This statement goes further and indicates that God the Father has special affection for Jesus specifically because He is laying down His life for the sake of these people. This is echoed in other New Testament Scriptures (Philippians 2:9; Ephesians 1:19–21; Hebrews 2:9).

Jesus reiterates that this is not a matter of theory: He will truly die. However, Jesus also predicts that He will resurrect from that death based on authority given Him by God.

It’s not shocking, then, to see many who were listening to Jesus’ words dismiss Him as a raving lunatic. He claims to be the sole example of a “good shepherd,” with special favor from God, who will soon rise from the dead. Others, of course, point out that Jesus’ miraculous signs make it very awkward to believe He’s insane or demonically possessed.

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Here, Jesus clarifies: this is exactly what He’s saying.

Command from the Father

John 10:18: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.'”

The context of these remarks is important: Jesus is still debating with religious critics who are angry over His recent miracle (John 9). There, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind, which sparked debates that did not end well for the local religious leaders.

Now, Jesus continues to explain His role as “the Good Shepherd,” which includes His willingness to die for the sake of His sheep. That sacrificial love, Jesus says, is a reason He has special favor with God the Father (John 10:17; Philippians 2:9). It’s possible, in some sense, that those listening might have assumed Jesus prior statement was just an assumption. In other words, that Jesus was “willing” to die, not that He “would die.” Talk of Christ’s death is something Jesus’ closest followers often struggled to accept.

As He continues, Jesus makes it clear that His role as “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:10–14) and “the Door” (John 10:7–9) not only includes an actual death, it also includes resurrection. That death is entirely voluntary—it is not something into which Jesus is being coerced (Matthew 26:53). And it will result in a resurrection, based on divine power and authority (John 2:19–21). In this relatively brief statement, Jesus claims to have power over life and death—even His own—as granted to Him by God. He predicts His own death and revival.

The grand nature of those ideas may be a reason that—at least here—the crowd doesn’t seem to react with accusations of blasphemy, as they do in other passages (John 5:18). In simple terms, what Jesus says is so outlandish that it suggests two other possibilities. The audience seems torn between Jesus being possessed—the ancients’ reference to insanity—and being a miraculously-verified messenger (John 10:19–21).

Division amongst the Jews

Many of Jesus’ words were divisive (John 7:43; 9:16). To some extent, His entire existence drives separation between human beings (Matthew 10:34–36; Psalm 53:1; Acts 25:19). Jesus even claimed to be “the Door” and the sole means of salvation (John 10:7–9); that implies a division of people into one of only two categories, saved and unsaved.

The specific words referred to here are Jesus’ comments about being killed and raised from death (John 10:15–18). This conversation happens immediately after Jesus has given sight to a man born blind (John 9). That sparked a debate where Jesus laid out three shepherding-related analogies to explain His ministry (John 10:1–14). The miracle leads some to believe Jesus is a legitimate messenger of God (John 10:21), others to suggest He’s a nutcase (John 10:20).

As always, how a person responds to Christ has everything to do with their own spiritual state (John 10:1–5). Those who want to follow God will respond accordingly (John 7:17). Those who don’t will find a way to resist, no matter what (John 5:39–40). Miracles and truthful teaching ought to lead people to accept Him (John 3:1–2), but a hard heart can always make excuses (Matthew 12:31; Luke 11:15).

This passage does not say how the rest of this encounter plays out; the last verses only show the two main views of the crowd. After that, the narrative will leap ahead several months.

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Insanity or God’s work

To some in the audience, this claim is bizarre enough that they think Jesus is crazy. This isn’t the first time people have suggested that He is mentally ill. At one point, His own family tried to bring Him home, thinking He had lost His mind (Mark 3:21). His critics sometimes accused Him of insanity—considered a form of demonic possession in that era—in order to discredit Him (John 8:48–52).

Others, however, point to Jesus’ miracles and other signs to suggest He’s telling the truth (John 3:1–2). The supernatural signs, especially, make it hard to accept the idea that Jesus is a raving lunatic (John 9:16).

There are two main positions of the crowd; no particular resolution is given. After recording the basic response of the audience, John’s gospel skips ahead several months to a different incident.

In contrast, those miracles are the main point referenced by the other major faction in the crowd.

They, like others before, rightly recognise that these are “signs” meant to give divine approval to Jesus’ message!


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