John 10 - The good shepherd

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

The ninth chapter closes with a discussion only two verses long between Jesus and the Pharisees. The beginning of the tenth chapter is connected with this discussion but so loosely that not even the person, who divided the text into chapters in the 13th century, was able to keep up with it.

In the tenth chapter, Jesus continues to shed light on his own identity, now with parables involving sheep and shepherds. There is a close association with the Synoptics (e.g. Mark 6:34, Matthew 9:36, and Luke 15:3-7) and with the Old Testament.

The context of the events remains irrelevant. In any case, Jesus is now teaching in Jerusalem. Towards the end of the chapter, there is mention of the Feast of Dedication of the temple. The first verses of the chapter should apparently be read against this background, too.

In the 160s B.C., the Greek-born Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes marched his troops into Jerusalem. He wanted to bring into line the temple service with the pagan cults and, under the penalty of death, banned the main Jewish customs, including circumcision. Some of the Jews had wanted this change, and the leaders of the temple gave in, but the people rebelled. To the amazement of all, their revolt was a success, and they were able to rededicate the temple.

In all likelihood, Ezekiel chapter 34 was read during the rededication celebration. This chapter talks about the corrupt shepherds of the people of Israel, and the Lord promises to look after his sheep himself (Ezekiel 34:11-16). It is a very messianic chapter. The Lord will take care of his people by setting up over them the promised king of the house of David so that they can live in peace, looked after by their God (34:23-31).

So we see that Jesus’ words about the good shepherd can be understood with the help of the Old Testament.

Jesus is the gate and the shepherd 10:1-21

During the time of Jesus, sheep were lead out to pasture for the day but for the night they were often brought back into the safety of a sheepfold surrounded by a wall. Several shepherds would bring their flocks into the same fold. Jesus is referring here to a sheepfold that was also guarded against thieves. In the morning, the shepherd would enter the fold giving his sheep a special call. His sheep would recognize his call and head for pasture.

Jesus’ speech here includes two metaphors connected with each other: Jesus is the gate of the sheepfold and also the shepherd of the flock. We shall now examine them both. The sheepfold was the refuge for the sheep. If someone tried to enter it over the wall, that person was certainly an intruder, either trying to steal or to cause harm. The proper way to enter is by a gate.

The things Jesus says about the shepherd can be understood from the perspective of his church. It is not a coincidence that in the early church, the name often used for the church leader was ‘pastor’. It was Christ himself who instituted the ministry of the shepherd. Throughout history, the Holy Spirit has called those people He wishes for service as pastors (see e.g. Acts 20:28).

It is impossible to be a shepherd for the flock if you are not right with Christ. Anyone trying to tend the sheep without entering through the gate is a dangerous robber and a destroyer of the flock. That person is akin to those about whom Jesus says, “All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” Jesus is not, of course, talking about Moses and the prophets but about false christs.

During Jesus’s time, the life of a shepherd was not idyllic but hard work. The shepherds belonged to the lower castes of society. When comparing himself to a shepherd, Jesus really has nothing high-flown in mind but brings up a task that is as plain and unglamorous as possible. Shepherding, in particular, is a job that may be done well or poorly. A hired hand, who cares nothing for the sheep, does it poorly. The owner of the flock, who values the sheep, does it well.

When John describes Jesus talking about the good shepherd, no doubt he has in mind the examples found in the Old Testament. Jesus is not a bad shepherd (Ezekiel 34), who allows the flock to be torn and leaves it scattered like the Israelites once were after a lost battle (1 Kings 22:17). He loves the flock and is prepared to sacrifice his own life for it. So to do the Father’s will, he will die, but he will receive his life back from the Father. This is the grand plan of God.

In the Old Testament the people of Israel was referred to as God's flock. Now, however, Jesus’s work transcends old boundaries, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” These words already foretell that Israel will be, together with the Gentiles, the church of Christ in which the Lord’s saving work has completely broken down the dividing wall that separated these two groups of people (cf. Ephesians 2).

A threatening scene 10:22-42

It is only now that John actually speaks about the Feast of Dedication, which was celebrated in December. The situation John describes is very threatening. Some scholars have, with reason, seen that there is a correspondence between especially this story and the fact that according to the Synoptics, Jesus was considered a blasphemer. For the umpteenth time, the Jews seek to kill Jesus. So the Passion of Christ is now beginning to unfold even more clearly. We can see a distinct correspondence between this scene and the Gospel of Mark, in which the shadow of Jesus’s cross falls across the narrative right from the start.

The present debate is not about seeking, like when Jesus was speaking with Nicodemus, nor is it an open and, initially, less important conversation like the one in the fourth chapter. Jesus is now approached by the Jews who demand plain answers to some questions and are ready to kill Jesus on account of his answer.

Jesus also makes a clear distinction between the debaters and those who are his own. The debaters do not believe in Jesus, because they simply are not his sheep. He gives eternal life to his own. His enemies reject this notion because of their blindness and inability to see that Jesus is one with the Father. That is why they regard their only Saviour as a blasphemer of the Almighty God and want to stone him.

The lyrics in the introductory hymn are repeated over and over,

“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”

However, Jesus’s hour had not yet come. John does not tell us much about the murder attempts, only that they did not succeed. This was not yet the time when Jesus was to suffer. On the contrary, it was still possible that someone might come to him and believe in him.

Thus the light was still shining, and the darkness had not overtaken it.