One shepherd one flock
As Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd in John 10, he speaks of there being one shepherd and one flock, and this aspect of “oneness” is one of the marks of the Catholic Church with a mission to reach all of the nations of the earth.
AGAPE CATHOLIC Bible Study
Jesus is the Good Shepherd
Jesus identifies Himself as the “good shepherd” using the words “I AM” (without a predicate nominative) in verses 11 and 14. Jesus identifies Himself with the significant and symbolic words “I AM,” a reference to Yahweh’s revelation of Himself to Moses three times as “I AM” in Exodus 3:13-14. In John’s Gospel, Jesus used the words “I AM” twenty-six times. He used “I AM” in seven different metaphors with a predicate nominative and four “I AM” statements without a predicate nominative:
|“I AM” with a predicate nominative||“I AM” without a predicate nominative|
|Jn 6:35||“I AM the bread of life”||Jn 8:24||“…if you do not believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.|
|Jn 8:12||“I AM the light of the world”||Jn 8:28||When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I AM (he)*|
|Jn 10:7||“I AM the gate for the sheep”||Jn 8:58||Amen, amen, I tell you, before Abraham ever was, I AM.|
|Jn 10:11, 14||“I AM the good shepherd”||Jn 13:19||I tell you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you may believe that I AM (he)*|
|Jn 11:25||“I AM the resurrection and the life”|
|Jn 14:6||“I AM the way and the truth and the life”|
|Jn 15:1||“I AM the true vine”|
|* the pronoun “He” is not in the Greek text in these verses.
Michal Hunt Copyright © 2003
Shepherd Imagery in the Book of Ezekiel
The people listening to Jesus would have recalled the 6th-century BC prophet Ezekiel’s prophecies from the Book of Ezekiel chapter 34, especially verses 9-12 where God promised to punish the “false shepherds” of Israel and to come Himself to shepherd the sheep of His flock, and verses 23-24 where He promised to appoint one shepherd over His people who is a Davidic prince:
because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD: I swear I am coming against these shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep so that they may no longer pasture themselves. I will save my sheep, that they may no longer be food for their mouths. For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark (Ex 34:9-12).
I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd. I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them, I, the LORD, have spoken (Ez 34:23-24).
Note that LORD or GOD written in capital letters represents the Divine Name YHWH, I AM, (with vowels rendered “Yahweh”) in the Hebrew translation of the Old Testament.
Jesus’ Passion and Death
The future event that Jesus refers to in verse 11 is His Passion and death. St. John Chrysostom wrote: “he is speaking of his passion, making it clear this would take place for the salvation of the world and that he would go to it freely and willingly” (Homilies on St. John, 59.3). Pope St. Gregory the Great commented on this passage, writing: “He did what he said he would do; he gave his life for his sheep, and he gave his body and blood in the Sacrament to nourish with his flesh the sheep he had redeemed” (In Evangelia homiliae, 14).
Jesus’ declaration in verse 11 is the first of five times that St. John will repeat Christ’s willingness to lay down His life for His sheep in this passage:
|Jn 10:11||I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.|
|Jn 10:15b||…and I lay down my life for the sheep.|
|Jn 10:17||This is why the Father loves me because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.|
|Jn 10:18a||No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.|
|Jn 10:18b||I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again…|
In the context of the shepherd caring for the sheep analogy, Jesus’ statement was shocking to the crowd listening to Him. A good shepherd’s duty was to defend and protect the flock, but he was not expected to die for the sheep.
Although it may seem contradictory to us that Jesus calls Himself both the “Good Shepherd” in verses 11-18 as well as the “Gate” in verses 7 and 9, this sheepfold imagery was very familiar to His audience. It is still common in many parts of the world, as it was in 1st century AD Judea, to bring several flocks of sheep together at night into one enclosed sheepfold where only a few shepherds could watch over and protect them from predators. It was also not unusual for stone-enclosed sheepfolds not to have a gate, so the shepherd would sleep in the ungated entrance to the sheepfold to protect the sheep. The shepherd, in effect, used his own body as the protective “gate” to the sheepfold. In the morning, when the other shepherds returned, each shepherd would call the sheep of his flock. Each animal knew the sound of its own shepherd’s voice, and they would come to him to be lead them out of the pen. Jesus’ body will become the “gate” into the sheepfold. His body on the cross from which water and blood flowed was the water and blood of the Church in Baptism and the Eucharist that opened the way into Heaven.
Hired Man vs. Good Shepherd
In verse 12, Jesus contrasts the shepherd who owns his flock of sheep with a man only hired to guard the sheep. The “hired man” only works for his wage. He does not have any emotional attachment to the sheep, and in times of inconvenience, danger, or risk, the hired man will leave or not live up to the task at hand. The “hired man” is the priest who does not unselfishly “shepherd” God’s flock. He avoids unpopular issues and does not teach on controversial topics but leaves the “flock” of his congregation unprotected to fall into sin. The “wolf” who endangers the “sheep” symbolizes the world in opposition to the Word of God. Unlike the hired man, the good shepherd is the one who seeks Christ’s glory. He is the priest who does not fear to reprove sinners.
St. Peter addressed this difference in his first letter to the Universal Church: So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed. Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd is revealed, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Pt 5:1-4).
St. Jose Maria Escriva wrote: “The holiness of Christ’s Spouse has always been shown, as it can be seen today, by the abundance of good shepherds. But our Christian faith, which teaches us to be simple, does not bid us be simple-minded. There are hirelings who keep silent, and there are hirelings who speak with words which are not those of Christ. That is why, if the Lord allows us to be left in the dark even in little things, if we feel that our faith is not firm, we should go to the good shepherd. He enters by the door as of right. He gives his life for others and wants to be in word and behavior a soul in love. He may be a sinner too, but he trusts always in Christ’s forgiveness and mercy” (Christ is Passing By, 34).
Jesus said: 14 “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”
For a second time, Jesus identifies Himself with the “good shepherd” prophesied by Ezekiel in Chapter 34:10-31, and for the second time, He promises to sacrifice Himself for His sheep.
God’s Covenant People “Know” Him
I know mine, and mine know me
This statement is the essence of a relationship with Christ, expressing knowledge in the sense of a personal covenant relationship. There are seven God-initiated covenants in the Old Testament, and the eighth is the New and Eternal Covenant in Christ Jesus (see the chart “Yahweh’s Eight Covenants”).
In the Biblical sense, “knowledge” is not simply the conclusion of an intellectual process but is the fruit of an experience, a personal encounter. Knowledge of God is an intimate association through the covenant relationship. In Hosea 2:21-22, the prophet speaks of the day when Yahweh will redeem Israel as His Bride. She will call Yahweh “my husband” and no longer call Him “my baal,” which is the address of a concubine or a slave to her master. The prophet wrote: I shall betroth you in uprightness and justice, and faithful love and tenderness. Yes, I shall betroth you to myself in loyalty and in the knowledge of Yahweh (Hos 2:18-20/16-18, NJB). We cannot separate knowledge of Yahweh from our hesed, in Hebrew, our faithful covenant love. This knowledge is not merely an intellectual acknowledgment. God “makes himself known” to humans when He enters into covenant with them and shows His love [hesed ] for them by the blessings He confers.
In this intimate relationship, God’s covenant people “know” Him when:
- They faithfully show their love for God by observing the commands and prohibitions of His covenant (Jn 14:14; 1 Jn 2:3-5).
- They show thankfulness for His gifts (Col 3:15-17; Heb 13:15).
- They return love for love in a marital covenant relationship between God and His Bride the Church (Prov 2:5; Is 11:2; 58:2; Rev 19:7-9).
Jesus took this definition of divine love further when He called us not just to love in the context of the covenant but to give ourselves sacrificially and unselfishly as He gave Himself for us. In His self-sacrificial love, He redefining the Greek word agape when He told us to love as He loves us (Jn 15:12). In Greek, agape meant spiritual love, but in the Christian context, it came to mean self-sacrificial love (Jn 15:11-14; also see Rom 12:1-2).
Jesus said: 16 “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
There can only be one covenant in christ and one Church because there can only be one Bride (see Many Religions—One Covenant, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict XVI; Heb 8:13). Jesus transformed the old Israel Bride of Yahweh into the new Israel Bride of Christ when she was born from His side at the cross in the water and blood flowing from His Body. Just as Eve, Adam’s bride, came to life from the side of her bridegroom Adam (Gen 2:21-23), the Church was born from the Body of Christ. Adam was unwilling to die for his bride when confronted by Satan in the form of a serpent (Rev 12:9), but Christ offered Himself as the sinless sacrifice for His Bride, the Church. Jesus fulfills the promise of Hosea 2:18-20 and the promise of a new and eternal ovenant in Jeremiah 31:31; 32:40 and 50:5. There is one flock and one Shepherd who is Jesus Christ, the supreme Shepherd of the one universal Church (Heb 13:20). The spiritual authority of those who shepherd the flock as Christ’s representatives (Peter and the other Apostles and their successors) is an authority that comes directly from Christ who gives them a share in His saving mission (see Jn 20:22-23; 21:15-17 and CCC 553 and 754).
The “Other Sheep”
But who are the “other sheep” who will become part of this New Covenant flock? The “other sheep” are the Gentiles who hear the voice of the Divine Shepherd and respond to His call. The Holy Spirit will also gather them into Jesus’ flock alongside the restored sheep of the new Israel (Acts 10:44-48). Christ will gather all who listen to His voice through the apostolic preaching of the Church and believe into the one flock that He leads to eternal life. The prophet Zechariah foretold this event in his prophecy of the sheep who broke out of the sheepfold and were led back by their king (Zec 13:7-9; 14:9). Jesus is both the Shepherd and the King of the everlasting Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:23-5; Sir 45:25; 27:11/13 2 Chron 13:5; Ps 89:2-5; Lk 1:32-33).
Proof of Jesus’ Divinity
17 “This is why the Father loves me because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”
This statement is proof of Jesus’ divinity. Only God Himself could have such absolute power over life and death. Jesus fulfilled this prophecy on the cross with His sacrifice followed by His Resurrection after three days (as the ancients counted). It was as Jesus foretold (Mt 20:17-19; Mk 10:32-34; Lk 18:31-33).
This is the command I have received from my Father.
CCC 607: “The desire to embrace his Father’s plan of redeeming love inspired Jesus’ whole life, for his redemptive passion was the very reason of his Incarnation…” In John 10:17-18, Jesus says: “The Father loves me because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.” The sacrifice of Jesus for the redemption of the world expressed His unity of will and His loving communion with God the Father. At the end of the parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew 18:14, Jesus states that the Father’s love excludes no one, saying, “it is never the will of your Father in Heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” In this statement, Jesus affirms that He came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28; Mk 10:45). His sacrifice is not limited but intended for all of humanity. The Catholic Church affirms that He died for all humankind without exception: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer” (CCC 605).
Our faith does not rest in a building like the Jerusalem Temple. Jesus is the living foundation stone of the New Covenant Church. Those who come to Jesus in faith and submit to the Sacrament of Baptism become a part of Christ as “living stones” of His Church built into the fabric of the New and eternal Covenant in Christ Jesus (1 Pt 2:4; Lk 22:20; CCC 756). Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is calling you into the sheepfold of His Church. Do you recognize His voice as He speaks to you in the Liturgy of the Word? Do you acknowledge that you follow Him as you make your procession up to the altar to receive Him, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist? Then rejoice, for the “stone” that the “builders” rejected is our resurrected Lord and our King who leads the sheep of His flock on the path to salvation!
(* indicates Scripture quoted or paraphrased in the citation):
Jesus Christ is the Shepherd and the Gate (CCC 754, 764*, 2665)
The Pope and Bishops as shepherds (CCC 553*, 857*, 861*, 896, 1558, 1561, 1568, 1574)
Priests as shepherds (CCC 874, 1120*, 1465, 1536, 1548-1551*, 1564*, 2179, 2686)
Christ is the cornerstone (CCC 756*)
We are God’s children now (CCC 1, 104*, 239*, 1692*, 1709, 2009, 2736*)
SOURCE: content taken from Michal E. Hunt at Agape Bible Study; used with permission. Section divisions and titles added.
Feasting on the Word
Jesus seeks out the lost
The theme tying together lectionary texts is sometimes subtle. This Sunday, however, any casual visitor to church would say, “Hey, there’s something going on with sheep and shepherds here!” Indeed, the Christian church has traditionally observed this Fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday. In all three years of the lectionary cycle, the texts are accompanied by an abundance of music, prayers, and literature from which to draw images and stories, enriching the worship experience.The Gospel text from John develops the theme, moving from Old Testament imagery to the wonderful reassurance we find in Jesus as our Shepherd. The Easter message is that Jesus returns to us and will never let us go. Our assurance is based not on what we do or do not do, but on what Jesus does in his role as the good Shepherd. As reassuring as the pastoral image may be, talk of sheep and shepherd warrants some scrutiny. What does such language really signify? What is a modern person to make of such a passage? One can get lost in pleasant revelry about white fluffy sheep gamboling on green hillsides. A friend came back from a trip to Scotland and Ireland and spoke of all the pictures she had taken of the striking countryside, only to discover when she compared them that there were sheep in almost every one of them. Yet how often do you or your congregants see sheep on your way to work? We often speak of a congregation as a “flock,” but such imagery is almost absent from our daily experience. Have we romanticized the image of Jesus as the good Shepherd due to our unfamiliarity with sheepherding? The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky, and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim had an edge to it. A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, “I am the good migrant worker.” An even stronger affront was Jesus’ allusion to the false shepherds who were like hired hands and did not care for the sheep, but ran away at the first sign of danger. We hear echoes of the Old Testament prophets who railed against the religious leaders who had neglected the people. The image of shepherd reminds us that God is especially concerned for those at risk, those who are vulnerable. Sheep are lost without the constant, vigilant care of their shepherd. In addition to unpacking the image of shepherd, consider the tricky issue of being called a sheep. Some parishioners bristle at the idea of being thought of as dumb and mindless. In her sermon “The Voice of the Shepherd,” Barbara Brown Taylor tells of an acquaintance who had actually grown up on a sheep ranch and could dispel the myth that sheep are dumb. It was actually the cattle ranchers who started that rumor, because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear with shouts and prods from the cowboys. But that does not work with sheep. If you stand behind sheep making noises, they will just run around behind you. They actually prefer to be led. Cows can be pushed; sheep must be led. Sheep will not go anywhere that someone else—their trusted shepherd—does not go first, to show them that everything is all right. “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive. They develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.” The shepherd’s voice is key. As Jesus says in this passage, “I know my own and my own know me” (v. 14). Not only that, but Jesus gives his very life for the sheep. The shepherd intentionally becomes the sacrificial lamb. As Isaiah foretold, “like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:7). Yet Jesus makes it clear that he gives his life willingly: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (v. 18). Herein is the power of Easter resurrection, the message that gives us hope. Sometimes we go astray, just like sheep. Sheep that are ill may follow the voice of a stranger. Sheep wander off and fall into ravines. There are many voices out there vying for our attention. Many distractions lure us from the path. Jesus promises that he will never let us go. His voice will bring us back. We belong to him. This is a strong word of reassurance to us in our struggles to be faithful. In our choices each day as we practice our faith by saying yes to some voices and saying no to others, Jesus is there, going before us and leading us. Jesus seeks out the lost, those in need of being rescued, who are often the forgotten of our society. Lowly shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night, were the first to hear the news of the birth of the Savior. Yes, the kings (the wise ones) came later. The fact that they were Gentiles points to the words Jesus speaks about “other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (v. 16). The relationship between the sheep and the shepherd is based on what the shepherd does, rather than on what the sheep do. It’s all about who the Shepherd is rather than who we are. The sheep feel secure just to hear the voice of the shepherd. Through that reassurance we in turn may allow the Shepherd’s voice to speak through us as we reach out to the lost and hurting we encounter on the way. NANCY R. BLAKELY
SOURCE: Content taken from FEASTING ON THE WORD, YEAR B (12 Volume Set); David L. Bartlett (Editor); Copyright © 2011. Westminster John Knox Press. All rights reserved.
Jesus is the good shepherd who cares for God’s people
God pictures his care of his people through the image of a shepherd and his sheep (Ps 23:1-4). In Psalm 80:1 God is called the “Shepherd of Israel.” In Isaiah 40:11 God promises to bring his people back from exile in Babylon like a shepherd gathering his lambs in his arms. God wanted his people to understand his grace, his mercy, and his love.One of the ways God cared for Israel was by appointing human shepherds, leaders who were supposed to serve as God’s representatives, demonstrating God’s care for his flock. But those who were supposed to lead the Israelites—who were in positions of religious influence and who were to be God’s representatives to his people—were not caring for the sheep. They were hurting the sheep. Instead of leading them to encounter and obey God, they were leading the people away from God and into empty religious ritual. Instead of bringing the people of God to graze in the pastures of God’s grace, the religious leaders were loading them up with the weight of religion and man-made requirements and making them plow the barren fields of legalism. Instead of guarding the flock of God, they were goading them to turn from God to their own efforts. Instead of leading them to the overflowing fountains of grace, they were leaving them distressed, diseased, and spiritually dead. In Ezekiel 34 God condemned the religious leaders of Israel for their mistreatment of his sheep (34:1-10). He says the shepherds have left the sheep exposed. They’ve forced them to fend for themselves. They’ve even killed the sheep for their wool and meat. In response, God will set up “one shepherd” over the flock—his servant David (34:22-24). At the time of this prophecy, King David was dead and had been for a long time. We understand this promise refers to a King who would come from the line of David. It’s a promise about the Messiah. All of this is background to help us interpret Jesus’s words in John 10. In the previous chapter Jesus healed a blind man. When the man who had been healed would not denounce Jesus, he was kicked out of the synagogue. The religious leaders left him to wander alone, fending for himself, but he didn’t remain alone for long. Jesus found him. Jesus fulfills Ezekiel 34. The shepherds of Israel neglected the sheep. They were reckless and destructive. But God hadn’t forgotten his flock. He sent a shepherd to rescue and care for his sheep. Jesus is the good shepherd who cares for God’s people. How does Jesus care for his sheep?
SOURCE: Content taken from CHRIST-CENTERED EXPOSITION COMMENTARY (32 Volumes); David Platt, Daniel L. Akin, and Tony Merida (Editors); Copyright © 2013-16. Holman Reference. All rights reserved.
The Biblical Imagination
Jesus, the image of a Shepherd
John 10:1-21 is a continuation of Jesus’ discussion with the Jews after the controversy surrounding the healing of the man born blind. It will end in the crowd being divided once again because of Jesus. With chapters 10–11 we rush to the close of Jesus’ ministry and on to Passion Week. Jesus begins with his solemn and enigmatic “amen, amen.” Verses 1-6 will establish the images that will be used in his extended illustration. This is the closest thing to a parable you’ll see in the Gospel of John. To those who accuse Jesus of being purposely obscure, notice that in the discussion that follows he will use two different metaphors to describe the nature of his ministry and will repeat each one twice. These are hardly the words of a person who is trying to be obscure.Jesus will present himself by means of the image of a shepherd. The “door for the sheep” is a variation of the same image. He will contrast himself with two other images representing the Pharisees, who he condemned in John 9:41 as being hopelessly blind. In contrast to the good shepherd, there are thieves (vv. 1, 10) and hired hands (v. 12). The watchman (doorkeeper) of verse 3 is probably John the Baptist, although “watchmen” is a code word in the Old Testament for the prophets (Hab 2; Ezek 33; see also 1 Pet 2:25; Heb 13:20). The shepherd calls the sheep to follow him after leading them out. The only redeeming characteristic of the sheep in this extended allusion is the fact that they are able to recognize the shepherd’s voice and listen to him. Their principal safety comes in recognizing the stranger’s voice and refusing to follow him. The small clutch of Jewish followers who have only recently come to believe in Jesus would do well to see that he is helping them understand how important it is that they learn to stop listening to and even flee from the thieves, robbers and hired hands, who represent the Pharisees. But this is John’s Gospel, and Jesus has just spoken a spiritual image, so we can be certain they will not understand. Which is precisely what happens in verse 6. Having established the basic image, Jesus will now improvise and expand. In verses 7-11 he will call himself the gate or door of the sheep. When we do our homework we learn that this is just another metaphor for shepherd. All over Palestine the fields are dotted with large circular stone sheep enclosures. At night the shepherd lies down in the gap, becoming a living door to keep the sheep in and the predators out. The others before him were thieves and robbers, says Jesus. The sheep refused to listen to them, an optimistic projection on the small clutch of newborn followers. Those who enter through him will find salvation, safety and sustenance. The robbers kill. Jesus gives life.
SOURCE: Content taken from THE BIBLICAL IMAGINATION (4 Volume Series); Michael Card; Copyright © 2011-14. IVP Books. All rights reserved.
LIFE APPLICATION STUDY BIBLE
Let your doubt deepen your faith
10:1 At night, sheep were often gathered into a sheep pen to protect them from thieves, weather, or wild animals. The sheep pens were caves, sheds, or open areas surrounded by walls made of stones or branches. The shepherd often slept across the doorway of the pen to protect the sheep. Just as a shepherd cares for his sheep, Jesus, the good shepherd, cares for his flock (those who follow him). The prophet Ezekiel, in predicting the coming of the Messiah, called him a shepherd (Ezekiel 34:23).10:7 In the sheep pen, the shepherd functioned as a gate, letting the sheep in and protecting them. Jesus is the gate to God’s salvation for us. He offers access to safety and security. Christ is our protector. Some people resent that Jesus is the gate, the only way of access to God. But Jesus is God’s Son—why should we seek any other way or want to customize a different approach to God? (See also the note on 14:6.) 10:10 In contrast to the thief who takes life, Jesus gives life. The life he gives right now is abundantly richer and fuller. It is eternal, yet it begins immediately. Life in Christ is lived on a higher plane because of his overflowing forgiveness, love, and guidance. Have you taken Christ’s offer of life? 10:11, 12 A hired hand tends the sheep for money, while the shepherd does it for love. The shepherd owns the sheep and is committed to them. Jesus is not merely doing a job; he is committed to love us and even lay down his life for us. False teachers and false prophets do not have this commitment.
SOURCE: Content taken from LIFE APPLICATION STUDY BIBLE NOTES, Copyright © 2019. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.
Boice Expositional Commentary
Shepherds, Thieves, and Sheepfolds
In view of the wide use of the shepherd theme throughout the Bible one would think that the shepherd parable in John 10 would be easy to interpret. But this is not the case, if we are to judge by the various interpretations given to it. In one interpretation the sheepfold is the world. In another it is the church. In a third it is heaven. In one interpretation the sheep are all mankind, in another only the Jews. All would agree that the shepherd is Jesus. But who is the porter? Who are the thieves? And how can Jesus be both the shepherd and the door of the sheepfold at the same time?I believe that these diverse views arise from a failure (1) to take the story in context and (2) to recognize that Jesus is playing upon various aspects of the shepherd imagery, much as a composer might develop variations upon a musical theme. The greatest failure is to neglect to take the story in its context. It is to be found in the preceding chapter in the story of the man born blind and in his mistreatment by those who were the leaders of the people. This is obvious because of the absence of any transitional words at the beginning of chapter 10. When John indicates a transition either geographically or in time he usually says something like “after these things,” “after this,” “on the next day,” or “as Jesus passed by.” Here the words of Jesus flow on immediately after his comments about the Pharisees at the end of chapter 9 and therefore are related to them. This does not mean that they were necessarily spoken on the same occasion. They may have been spoken later; in fact, they probably were. But it does mean that Jesus had the incident of the blind man in view as he told the parable. As soon as we recognize this, we recognize that the thieves and robbers must refer to the false shepherds of Israel (the Pharisees) and that the sheepfold represents Judaism. The ones who hear Christ’s voice and respond to his call are those of his own who are within Israel, of whom the man born blind is an example. This understanding of the parable is further encouraged when we recognize the particular aspect of the shepherd imagery upon which Jesus is playing in these first verses—which, by the way, is not the same as that used later. In this chapter there are two kinds of sheepfolds. The first kind of sheepfold was that found in the countryside. It was nothing more than a circle of rocks into which the sheep could be driven. There was no door, just an opening across which the shepherd would place his body. This is the kind of sheepfold that Jesus is thinking about when he says, “I am the gate for the sheep,” just a verse or so later. The other kind of sheepfold was more substantial. This kind was found in the towns and villages and consisted of a room or enclosure with a regular gate or door. Into such an enclosure many shepherds together would drive their flocks when they returned to the village at night, and at such a place at night the sheep would be in the care of a porter. In the morning each shepherd would come to the fold, call his sheep by name—they, incidentally, literally knew his voice and would respond to his call—and then lead his own sheep out to pasture. This is the kind of sheepfold about which Christ is thinking in this parable. What is the sheepfold then? It is not heaven, for thieves and robbers do not climb up into heaven. It is not the church, for the shepherd does not lead his flock out of that, as he does here. The sheepfold is Judaism, as we have already been led to suspect from the context of chapter 9; and the point is that Jesus presented himself to Judaism in order to call out from that body those whom God had given him. Later he says that he will soon call out sheep from other folds that there might be one great flock, the church, and one shepherd (v. 16). The porter—if we must identify him—is God, or God’s Holy Spirit, who opens to Christ and releases the sheep to Christ’s call.