Our text in John chapter 10 is best introduced by this Old Testament text in Ezekiel chapter 34:
1 And the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD to the shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flocks? 3 You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. 6 My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, My flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.” 7 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 “as I live,” says the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock became a prey, and My flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd, nor did My shepherds search for My flock, but the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock”—9 therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD! 10 Thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require My flock at their hand; I will cause them to cease feeding the sheep, and the shepherds shall feed themselves no more; for I will deliver My flock from their mouths, that they may no longer be food for them.” 11 For thus says the Lord GOD: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I will feed My flock, and I will make them lie down,” says the Lord GOD. 16 “I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment.” 17 And as for you, O My flock, thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. 18 Is it too little for you to have eaten up the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture—and to have drunk of the clear waters, that you must foul the residue with your feet? 19 And as for My flock, they eat what you have trampled with your feet, and they drink what you have fouled with your feet.” 20 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD to them: “Behold, I Myself will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. 21 Because you have pushed with side and shoulder, butted all the weak ones with your horns, and scattered them abroad, 22 therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and My servant David a prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken. 25 I will make a covenant of peace with them, and cause wild beasts to cease from the land; and they will dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. 26 I will make them and the places all around My hill a blessing; and I will cause showers to come down in their season; there shall be showers of blessing. 27 Then the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase. They shall be safe in their land; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I have broken the bands of their yoke and delivered them from the hand of those who enslaved them. 28 And they shall no longer be a prey for the nations, nor shall beasts of the land devour them; but they shall dwell safely, and no one shall make them afraid. 29 I will raise up for them a garden of renown, and they shall no longer be consumed with hunger in the land, nor bear the shame of the Gentiles anymore. 30 Thus they shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and they, the house of Israel, are My people,” says the Lord GOD.’” 31 “You are My flock, the flock of My pasture; you are men, and I am your God,” says the Lord GOD (Ezekiel 34:1-31, NKJV).
Here, through the prophet Ezekiel, God rebukes the evil shepherds (or leaders) of the nation Israel. He speaks of a coming day when they will be judged, and when God Himself will gather His scattered flock in the person of Messiah (“My servant David,” verse 24). In our text in John 10, Jesus boldly claims to be the promised “Good Shepherd,” and in contrast to His shepherding, He exposes and indicts the Jewish religious leaders (especially the Pharisees) as wicked shepherds, who care not for the hurting and troubled sheep and who use and abuse the sheep of God’s flock for their own personal gain.
This is the first time in the Gospel of John that the topic of shepherding152 has been addressed as such, though it is not the last (see John 21:15-17). It is a very common theme in the Old Testament,153 and it also appears in the Synoptic Gospels,154 not to mention the rest of the New Testament.155 While the subject of shepherds and shepherding unifies all of chapter 10, the teaching of our Lord recorded in this chapter seems not to have taken place all at one time. The teaching referred to in verses 22-42 appears to have occurred several months later than that of verses 1-21. The feast of Tabernacles took place in the Fall; the feast of Dedication was observed in the winter. We cannot be sure where Jesus was or what He did during these few intervening months.
The teaching of Jesus in our text (verses 1-21) appears to closely follow the healing of the man born blind and related events, which are recorded in chapter 9. This appears to be a safe conclusion, based upon three observations. First, there is no indication of a change of time or setting in the first verse of chapter 10. Second, the expression, “Verily, verily …” is never used to introduce a new section in the Gospel of John:
The opening ‘Verily, verily’ … never begins a discourse. It always follows up some previous teaching. It indicates that the following statement is important, but also that it has a connection with the preceding. This passage then must be understood in the closest of connections with the story of the blind man.156
Third, in verse 21 of our text, reference is made to the healing of the man born blind: “Others said, ‘These are not the words of someone possessed by a demon. A demon cannot cause the blind to see, can it?’” The healing of the man born blind is very fresh in the minds of those who are divided as to who Jesus is. I therefore conclude that the events of John 10:1-21 follow immediately upon the healing of the man born blind and his “interrogation” by the Pharisees. The events of verses 22 and following take place a few months later, though the sheep/shepherding theme continues throughout the rest of the chapter.
In John chapter 10, our Lord identifies Himself as the “Good Shepherd,” contrasting Himself with those shepherds of Israel who are rebuked by the Lord in Ezekiel. Ezekiel indicts the wicked “shepherds of Israel” who care for themselves at the expense of the flock. They prey upon the sheep rather than protecting them from predators. They feed and clothe themselves at the expense of the flock, yet they do nothing to minister to the needs of the sickly or injured among the flock (Ezekiel 34:3-4). It is not difficult to see that Jesus looks upon the Pharisees before Him as the kind of shepherds Ezekiel condemned. The paralytic man in John chapter 5 had spent years unable to walk, and thus was forced to support himself by begging. Yet when Jesus healed him on a Sabbath day, the Jews were incensed. It is clear they would have preferred that this man not be healed at all than for him to be healed on the Sabbath. They most certainly had no compassion on the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 7:53–8:11). They were more than willing, however, to “use” her in their efforts to accuse Jesus of contradicting the law of Moses.
In the immediately preceding context (John chapter 9), the Pharisees were greatly distressed by the healing of the man born blind. These religious leaders did not think of the Israelites as sheep, but as an ignorant, disgusting, mob (John 7:49). The “fold” (of those destined to enter the kingdom of God) was considered to be a kind of private club, of which they were the membership committee. Thus, they had no compassion on the man born blind. He was a write-off. And when this man refused to cooperate (and pointed out their inconsistency with their own teaching), they “put him out”—not just “out of the synagogue,” but, in truth and reality (so far as their thinking is concerned), out of the fold. Jesus, on the other hand, has just brought this man into His flock, by faith. No wonder Jesus turns to the subject of shepherding in John 10. Here, he contrasts Himself (the Good Shepherd) with the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews, who were evil shepherds.157
This is truly one of the greatest passages in the Gospel of John and of the whole New Testament. We will only begin to plumb the depths of the truths contained here, but let us begin, looking to the Spirit of God to enlighten our hearts and minds concerning Him who is the Good Shepherd.
1 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The doorkeeper158 opens the door for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought all his own sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice. 5 They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him, because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice.”
Our Lord describes a typical pastoral scene that is familiar to all in His audience. Many of the Israelites were sheep herders (see Genesis 46:31-34). In any city or village, there would be a number of flocks of sheep. For convenience, they would all be herded into a common sheepfold, a simple enclosure where the sheep could be contained, while thieves and predators would be forbidden access. There would be but one door, one access through which the sheep would enter and exit. Through this same door the various shepherds would enter to gather their flocks. Early in the morning, the shepherd arrives at the sheepfold and enters to lead his flock out to pasture. Then, at the end of the day, he (or she—I have seen many a girl or young woman herding sheep in the East) brings his sheep into the sheepfold for safekeeping through the night. One person is assigned as the doorkeeper. Perhaps this duty is shared among the shepherds on a rotating basis. The doorkeeper stations himself in the doorway, keeping the sheep safely inside and any danger to the sheep outside. In the morning, each shepherd reports to the doorkeeper, who recognizes him and lets him into the sheepfold. Once inside the fold, each shepherd calls out his own sheep and leads them outside the fold. Knowing the voice of their shepherd, the sheep of each flock go to their own shepherd when called by name, and then they follow him outside the sheepfold, only to be brought safely back to the fold in the evening.
Jesus uses this familiar scene to demonstrate how He is Israel’s true Shepherd, and how the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders are evil shepherds. Evil shepherds—to whom Jesus refers as “thieves and robbers”—do not dare present themselves to the doorkeeper, because he will know them for what they are, and will not grant them access to the sheep, since their intent is to steal sheep and to kill them. If they are to gain entrance into the sheepfold, they must enter by some other way than through the door.159 They must climb over the wall. The way these folks seek to get to the sheep makes it clear that they have no good in mind. The true shepherd enters the sheepfold in a way that demonstrates his claim to his sheep is legitimate. He comes to the doorkeeper, who recognizes him and grants him access through the door to the sheep.
Some will differ over the interpretation of some of the details, but the general meaning of this allegory is clear to the reader.160 Jesus is the true Shepherd, Israel’s Messiah. There are many who have claimed to be “shepherds” of God’s flock, but who most certainly were not. Included would be the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders who were currently opposing Jesus. Also in view are those false shepherds yet to appear (see Matthew 24:11, 22-28). Whether in the past, present, or future, all false shepherds are alike in that they use and abuse the sheep for their own selfish interests, and they attempt to gain access and leadership in a way that seeks to avoid the divinely prescribed boundaries. Simply put, they don’t meet the job description of a true shepherd, as described in Ezekiel 34 and elsewhere. And so far as any who would claim to be the Messiah, they do not fulfill the Old Testament prophecies pertaining to Messiah and His coming.
Jesus is the true Shepherd. He is the Messiah, the One who came in fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies concerning Him. If you would, these biblical qualifications are the “door” to which Jesus refers in verses 1-5, and through which He passed by meeting every one of them. While not all would agree with this, it seems to me that the “doorkeeper” must be John the Baptist. As David was designated the king of Israel by the prophet Samuel, so also Jesus, the Son of David, was designated Israel’s King by the prophet John the Baptist. The sheep in the sheepfold are the Jews to whom our Lord came161 as the Messiah. His flock is but a portion of the sheep in the sheepfold. His sheep are the “elect,” the sheep whom God the Father has given to the Son (6:37, 39), and thus Jesus calls them “His own sheep” (verses 3, 4). Because they are His sheep, they “know His voice,” recognize Him as the Messiah, and trust in Him as their Shepherd. These sheep, who belong to the true Shepherd, also know better than to follow any false shepherd. Instead, they avoid such “shepherds” by fleeing from them.
6 Jesus told them this parable, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus said to them again, “I tell you the solemn truth, I162 am the door for the sheep.163 8 All who came before me were164 thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters through me,165 he will be saved,166 and will come in and go out,167 and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I168 have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.169 11 “I am the good shepherd.170 The good shepherd lays down his life for171 the sheep. 12 The hired hand172 who is not a shepherd and does not own sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and runs away. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 Because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep, he runs away. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know173 my own and my own 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 do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd. 17 This is why the Father loves me—because I lay down my life so that I may take it back again. 18 No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again. This is the commandment I received from my Father.”
This text is not actually a parable, as we might think of the (English) word here from its use in the Synoptic Gospels. The word for parable, used so often in the Synoptic Gospels (approximately 50 times) is not found in the Gospel of John. Conversely, the Greek word which is rendered “parable” above is not found in any of the Synoptic Gospels, but it is used four times in the Gospel of John. Hendriksen, Morris and Carson seem to agree that the word “parable” may not be the best translation for the term John has employed:
The discourse about the good shepherd is called a paroimia. In general a paroimia (literally, wayside saying) is a figurative saying (16:25, 29). Here in chapter 10 it is an allegory rather than a parable. The Gospel of John does not contain any parables. The very term parable occurs only in the Synoptics (and in Heb. 9:9; 11:19), while paroimia occurs only in the Fourth Gospel (and in II Pet. 2:22). In the N. T. there is some overlapping in the meaning of the terms parable and paroimia: each may refer to a proverb (II Pet. 2:22; cf. Luke 4:23), but this is the exception rather than the rule. Similarly the Hebrew mashal has a very wide connotation: proverb, parable, poem, riddle (veiled and pointed remark). … Essentially the difference in meaning between a paroimia in the sense of allegory (as here in chapter 10) and a parable amounts to this, that the former partakes of the nature of a metaphor; the latter is more like a simile. A metaphor is an implied comparison (‘Tell that fox,’ meaning Herod); a simile is an expressed comparison (‘his appearance was as lighting). An allegory may be defined as an extended metaphor; a parable, as an extended simile.174
It is difficult to class this section exactly. It is called a paroimia in v. 6 …, which may indicate a proverb, or, more generally, a ‘dark saying’ of some sort. It differs from the Synoptic parables in that there is no connected story. Most people call it an allegory but Lagrange objects that in an allegory the one person can scarcely be represented by two figures, as here Jesus is both shepherd and door. He prefers to call it un petit tableau parabolique. The name we give it matters little, but in our interpretation we must bear in mind that it does not fit neatly into any of our usual categories. It is basically an allegory, but with distinctive features of its own.175
The word rendered ‘figure of speech’ is paroimia, an expression that occurs again in 16:25, 29 but never in the Synoptic Gospels. The favoured term there is parabole (‘parable’), which never occurs in John. Both words render Hebrew masal, and all three words can refer to an extraordinarily wide variety of literary forms, including proverbs, parables, maxims, similes, allegories, fables, riddles, narratives embodying certain truths, taunts and more (cf. Carson, Matt, pp. 301-304). The common feature in these quite different genres is that there is something enigmatic or cryptic about them: hence NIV’s ‘figure of speech.’ Whatever the form (and Jesus used many forms), Jesus’ opponents did not understand what he was telling them.176
It is little wonder that our Lord’s audience does not understand Him. How can they when they are not His sheep (10:26-27)? In verses 7-18, Jesus continues with the sheep/shepherd imagery, but with a somewhat different twist.177 First, He shifts from the more general third person (“the one who,” “he,” “him,” “his”) to the very specific first person singular (“I,” “me”). He makes it very clear from here on that He is speaking of Himself as “the True Shepherd” and “the Good Shepherd.” He now speaks of Himself as the “door,” and He drops any further reference to the “doorkeeper.” In verses 7-10, John continues to speak of those who are “thieves and robbers,” but in verses 11-18 Jesus contrasts Himself—“the Good Shepherd”—with hirelings. The Good Shepherd not only presents Himself in a way that is fitting, He also cares for the sheep by laying His life down for them.
The importance of our Lord’s teaching is indicated by the familiar expression, “Truly, truly …,” or as the NET Bible renders it, “I tell you the solemn truth …” Jesus is the “door” for the sheep. In verses 7-10, it is not “the shepherd” who passes through the door, but his sheep. Those sheep who pass through the door—who trust in Jesus as God’s Messiah, the Good Shepherd—are those who are saved, and who enter into the abundant life. In “sheep terms,” they enjoy the safety of the shepherd’s care and protection, and the abundance of the rich pastures and water to which he leads them. They couldn’t have it any better. In “people terms,” those who trust in Jesus are forgiven their sins and enter into the abundant life, under the protection, guidance, and tender care of the Savior, who is their “Good Shepherd.”
In what appears to be a sweeping statement, Jesus says, “All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them” (verse 8). He most certainly is not referring to the godly prophets of old, men like Moses and Elijah, and Daniel.178 I believe we could paraphrase our Lord’s words in this way: “All who have come before me, claiming to be me—what I alone am as the Good Shepherd—are thieves and robbers.” In the immediate context, Jesus has just claimed to be “the door.” When He speaks of “all who came before me,” He is referring to all those pseudo-shepherds (past, present, and future) who seek to usurp His place and prominence as the One sent from heaven by the Father, the Messiah. The Pharisees certainly think of themselves as the “gatekeepers” of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ day: “But woe to you experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You keep locking people out of the kingdom of heaven! For you neither enter nor permit those trying to enter to go in” (Matthew 23:13).
These “shepherds” are nothing more than “thieves and robbers.” They do not come to do good to the sheep. They do not care about the sheep, nor do they care for the sheep. They come for personal gain, at the expense of the sheep. But the Lord’s sheep are not taken in. They know the voice of their Shepherd, and they know a stranger when he comes as their shepherd, so they do not listen to them. In contrast, the Good Shepherd has come to benefit the sheep, at His own expense.
Evangelistic efforts in my generation have placed John 10:10b in the spotlight: “I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” It is a great text and worthy of our attention. My only concern is that in taking this half-verse out of its context, we lose some of its meaning. Jesus has “come so that His sheep may have life, and have it abundantly,” but He has done so in contrast to the evil shepherds, who have come “only to steal and kill and destroy” (verse 10a). Pseudo-shepherds promise sheep “the good life,” but they most certainly do not provide it. It is our Lord who is the Good Shepherd, and as such He alone gives salvation, safety, and the abundant life. There is not only an abundance for the sheep here, but a freedom. They can “come in and go out, and find pasture.” This does not mean that they can go their own way, but the Good Shepherd goes before His flock, and His sheep willingly follow Him. He does not, as some sheep herders are inclined to do, drive them (sometimes using a sheepdog, which nips away at their feet).
Now we come to the really amazing part. Pseudo-shepherds do not care about the flock; they care about themselves. Thus, they use and abuse the flock, but they do not tenderly care for the flock. They come “to steal and kill and destroy.” The Good Shepherd intimately knows and tenderly cares for His flock, but He does far more. He places the interests of the flock above His own, and thus in order to save the flock, He lays down His life for His sheep. The hireling is interested in his wages more than the sheep he is paid to care for. If a wolf attacks the sheep under his care, he would be risking personal injury were he to seek to save the sheep. The hireling therefore forsakes the sheep to save his own skin. He runs from danger, rather than endanger himself by seeking to save the flock.
The Good Shepherd does much more than simply put himself in harm’s way to save the sheep; He deliberately lays down His life in order to save the sheep. The sacrificial death of the Good Shepherd described here is not for “sheep” in general (all the sheep in the sheepfold of verses 1-5); it is for His sheep, the sheep in His flock, the elect whom the Father has given Him, whom He Himself has chosen:
It is for the sheep—only for the sheep—that the good shepherd lays down his life. The design of the atonement is definitely restricted. Jesus dies for those who had been given to him by the Father, for the children of God, for true believers. This is the teaching of the Fourth Gospel throughout (3:16; 6:37, 39, 40, 44, 65; 10:11, 15, 29; 17:6, 9, 20, 21, 24). It is also the doctrine of the rest of Scripture. With his precious blood Christ purchased his church (Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:25-27); his people (Matt. 1:21); the elect (Rom. 8:32-35).179
However clearly this Gospel portrays Jesus as the Saviour of the world (4:42), the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29, 36), it insists no less emphatically that Jesus has a peculiar relation with those the Father has given him (6:37ff.), with those he has chosen out of the world (15:16, 19). So here: Jesus’ death is peculiarly for his sheep, just as we elsewhere read that ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ (Ephesians 5:25).180
In verses 1-5, the sheepfold into which the true Shepherd enters contains many flocks. Only some of these sheep “belong” to the true Shepherd. Out of the sheepfold of Israel, the true Shepherd calls His own sheep by name. His sheep know His voice and follow Him out of the fold. Verses 7-18 leave the sheepfold (Israel) and focus on the flock of the Good Shepherd. It is for this flock that Jesus laid down His life. His sacrificial atoning death was no accident, and the Shepherd was no helpless victim (in the popular sense of that term today), overcome by His adversaries. His death was by His own will and purpose, and in obedience to the Father’s will. His death was purposed by Him to save all those the Father had given to Him. He laid down His life so that He could take it up again. It was a sacrificial death, sovereignly purposed and sovereignly played out. Our Lord was never more “in control” (that is what sovereignty is about) than when He was hanging on the cross of Calvary. You will remember that it was He who “gave up His spirit” (John 19:30).
So far, the focus has been upon the relationship between Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and His Jewish sheep. He is, after all, the Jewish Messiah, who came to save His people. But “His people” does not include every Israelite (verses 1-5; see Romans 9:6); it does include many from among the Gentiles: “I have181 other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold.182 I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd” (verse 16).
Jesus does not say that He will have other sheep, but rather that He does have them. These are surely elect “sheep” from among the Gentiles. While these “sheep” have not yet become a part of our Lord’s flock, they most certainly will. Our Lord can therefore speak of these “sheep” as those “sheep” He already has, because salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is God’s work. Men are called to respond, and respond they will if they are His sheep. They will hear His voice, and they will follow Him. These sheep will become a part of our Lord’s one flock. They are not an inferior flock, nor are they a separate flock. Believing Jews and Gentiles make up one flock. Paul puts it this way:
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands—12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who turned both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, in his flesh, 15 when he nullified the law of commandments in decrees. The purpose of this was to create in himself the two into one new man, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and non-citizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Elsewhere Paul writes,
26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).
It is for this reason that I very much dislike the expressions, “Jewish Christian” and “Gentile Christian.” There are only “Christians.” There is only “one flock,” with “one shepherd” (verse 16). I also struggle with churches which are recognized as “Jewish congregations” or “Gentile congregations.” Divisions based upon theological and denominational lines may not always be commendable, though they seem to be a fact of life. Divisions based solely upon racial lines are much more suspect, in my opinion. It is the very “stuff” of which the Judaizers of the New Testament were made, the error which endangered the church and the gospel in Acts and the Epistles.
Verses 17-19 stress two important and related dimensions of our Lord’s work as the “good Shepherd.” First of all, as the good Shepherd, our Lord is also the sovereign Shepherd. This is a point that will be taken up shortly, in relation to the security of the sheep. Our Lord is no victim, and His life is not taken away by men. He voluntarily gives His life for the sheep. He does so with full confidence that He will then rise from the dead. In His words, He lays down His life so that He “may take it back again” (verse 17). He lays down His life in order that He may rise from the dead. He who is life, who is the source of all life (see 1:1-5), cannot have His life taken away against His will. He who is life must give up His own life, and He also has the authority to take it up again! Such a Shepherd cannot be defeated, and thus His sheep could not be more secure.
The second thing verses 17-19 stress is the unity of the Father and the Son in the work of redemption. The Son willingly lays down His life for the sheep, knowing this is the Father’s will. It is, in fact, the Father’s commandment (verse 18). The Son’s sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary enhances the Father’s love for Him (verse 17). On the one hand, Jesus and the Father are united in the work of saving men; on the other, Jesus submits to the Father’s will when He lays down His life for His sheep.
It is Leon Morris183 who observes that this chapter contains the last public teaching of Jesus that John records. It seems to me that as John records our Lord’s teaching here on the “Good Shepherd,” he sums up all the major themes of his Gospel to this point, and he does so in a way that climaxes at the cross of Calvary and the substitutionary atonement accomplished by our Lord. John the Baptist’s ministry is described as the work of the doorkeeper in verses 1-5.184 Our Lord’s deity and union with the Father are also clearly stated. Our Lord came to the house of Israel, and many rejected Him. We are told here that it is because many in the sheepfold of Israel were not His sheep. They did not hear His voice. Those who were His sheep heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and followed Him. The Good Shepherd is here presented as the Shepherd who will voluntarily lay down His life for His sheep. He will do so in order that He may rise from the dead, resulting in a completed redemption.
In this final collection of our Lord’s teaching on the Good Shepherd, there is the most direct statement yet concerning His sacrificial death. There is also the clearest condemnation of the Jewish religious leaders, who are at best “hirelings” and at worst “thieves and robbers.” Nowhere has the contrast between the Good Shepherd and the evil shepherds been as clear as we see here. This contrast chart may be helpful:
The Good Shepherd
1 “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber.
5 They will never follow a stranger, but will run away from him, because they do not recognize the stranger’s voice.”
2 The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The doorkeeper opens the door for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought all his own sheep out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they recognize his voice.
8 All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.
6 Jesus told them this parable, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So Jesus said to them again, “I tell you the solemn truth, I am the door for the sheep.
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;
9 I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture. I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly (verse 10b).
12 The hired hand who is not a shepherd and does not own sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and runs away. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 Because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep, he runs away.
11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own 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 do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd. 17 This is why the Father loves me—because I lay down my life so that I may take it back again. 18 No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again. This is the commandment I received from my Father.”
This, of course, is the beginning of the end. Up to this point, these wicked shepherds have been attacking Jesus at every opportunity. Now, He commences to attack them. We know that our Lord’s final attack (as described in Matthew 23) will bring the response our Lord expected—the cross of Calvary. Now, more than ever, Jesus is a marked man. The Jewish religious leaders are more determined than ever to put Him to death. It is now only a matter of the right opportunity.
As we conclude this lesson, let me draw your attention to some of the “high points” of this passage and suggest some thoughts for your consideration.
First of all, our text reminds us that “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” I think we would all have to agree that the Pharisees are much more highly educated than the masses, whom they despise (7:49). In spite of all their “knowledge” of the Old Testament, the Pharisees do not know God. They do not know the voice of the Great Shepherd, Jesus Christ. That is why they cannot “hear” Him. That is why they wish to kill Him. There is a great deal of difference between knowing about God and knowing God; while education has much to do with the former, it has little to do with the latter.
As individuals and as a church, we know a great deal about God and about His Word, and this is very good. But it is not the same as knowing God Himself, in the Person of Jesus Christ. Calvin puts it very well when he writes,
This passage ought to strike us with the deepest shame; first, because we are so ill accustomed to the voice of our Shepherd, that there are hardly any who do not listen to it with indifference; and, next, because we are so slow and indolent to follow him. I speak of the good, or of those who are at least passable; for the greater part of those who boast that they are Christ’s disciples kick fiercely against him. Lastly, as soon as the voice of any stranger has sounded in our ears, we are hurried to and fro; and this lightness and unsteadiness sufficiently shows how little progress we have hitherto made in the faith.185
There is nothing more important than knowing God:
7 But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. 8 More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I might gain Christ, 9 and be found in him, not because of having my own righteousness derived from the law, but because of having the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is based on Christ’s faithfulness. 10 My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:7-11).
Second, there is a fundamental principle found here in John 10, which will give us great joy and protect us from the evil one: It is Jesus Christ alone who offers us the abundant life. Knowing Him is the Christian’s greatest privilege and blessing. It is also our greatest defense against the wiles of the devil, who is constantly trying to tempt us to follow false shepherds (see 2 Corinthians 11:1-15). There is no sweeter sound than that of His voice, and knowing the sound of His voice, we should easily sense when a pseudo-shepherd comes our way. I cannot stress this truth enough. From the very beginning, God is the one “who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). It was this way from the beginning. Look at the vast wealth of beauty and enjoyment God provided for man in the Garden of Eden, and yet Satan sought to portray God as someone who was holding back something good. He convinced Eve that he had more to offer than God, that he was the one who gave abundant life. And in their taking of the forbidden fruit, Adam and his wife did not experience the “life” Satan promised, but death.
It has been this way ever since. Satan is the one who would deceive us to believe that the Christian life is a life of denial, of doing without the “good things of life.” It is a lie! Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He laid down His life so that we might have abundant life. He gives life, eternal life, abundant life. Satan and all of his pseudo-shepherds offer the “good life,” but what they produce is theft, murder, and destruction. Young person, do you think you are missing the abundant life by refraining from pre-marital sex? The abundant life is that life in which sexual pleasures are sought and experienced only within the boundaries which God Himself has set. The abundant life is not having everything you want, here and now; it is knowing and serving Jesus Christ. Do not fall for Satan’s lies, or seek what God has forbidden as though it was the “good life.” The good life is living as one of His sheep, and following Him as the Great and Good Shepherd.
We are now brought to the third observation: John 10 is the best commentary available on Psalm 23. The Psalm begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want …” Isn’t that exactly what our Lord promises us in John chapter 10? When He is our Shepherd, we will not lack any good thing (see Psalm 34:10; 84:11). There is nothing more assuring than these words in Psalm 23, and in John 10 Jesus makes it clear that all the blessings of this Psalm are to be found and experienced in Him—and in Him alone.
I need to ask you a very personal question, my friend: “Is the Lord Jesus Christ your Good Shepherd?” Do you hear His voice, even as you read this chapter in John’s Gospel? The Good Shepherd is also the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, see also v. 36). The Good Shepherd laid down His life by becoming the Lamb of God. The Son of God took on human flesh, adding perfect humanity to His undiminished deity. Having no sin, He died on the cross of Calvary in the sinner’s place, to make an atonement for our sins, and to procure the gift of eternal life. Have you acknowledged your sin, and trusted in Him alone who can forgive sins? That is how you follow the Good Shepherd. Can you hear His voice, calling you to believe in Him?186
Fourth, while God loves, calls, and cares for His sheep individually, much of His care and guidance comes as His sheep are a part of a flock. We live in a very individualistic age, when personal independence and autonomy are paramount in the minds of many Christians. I would simply remind you that it is both arrogant and ignorant for us to expect and demand personalized ministry and attention from human “shepherds,” whenever we want it. In the first place, it is not possible. In the second, it is not necessary or good. Even empowered by the Spirit, men can only be in one place at a time. Human shepherds cannot possibly live up to the expectations that many place upon them. This is why God deals with His church as a flock. It seems clear to me that God has instituted His church so that the needs of His people can be met in the context of a flock. Are you vitally involved with a flock of sheep (a church)? You should be, both to minister to others, and to be ministered to by others. Many churches, like our own, have small groups for ministry as well. In these smaller groups, individual sheep can be known and cared for individually. If you are not a part of some such group, I believe you should be, because God provides care for His sheep in the context of a flock.
But let me press the point a little further. God has no limits on His time or availability. While men can be in only one place at a time, God has no such limitations. He can—and often does—minister to each of us in a very personal way. But there are times when we expect or even demand that God minister to us “personally” when this is neither necessary nor beneficial. I may shock you when I say this, but I believe there is an element of truth here. Some people wish to receive personal guidance from God when He has already spoken clearly in His Word. They want God to give them some special revelation or personal word from above, when it isn’t necessary. God may have already spoken to us clearly in His Word, but we may simply be too lazy to seek it out for ourselves. (If all else fails, we seek to find a “How To” book, which makes it easy for us.) Let us not demand that God minister to us personally when He has already done so, through His Word or through His body, the church.
I’m almost finished with this point, but not quite. Sometimes human shepherds find it flattering when people depend upon them entirely for shepherding. The Lord’s sheep are His sheep, not our sheep. It is He alone who saves His sheep and makes them secure. It is He alone who knows His sheep intimately. Let us not dare to be like the false shepherds, who want His sheep as our own, to meet our own selfish needs. As under-shepherds, it is our calling and privilege to point men to the Great Shepherd, whose sheep they are.
Fifth, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ is the ultimate standard for all shepherding, and for every shepherd. Let me first say that Jesus Christ is the Great Shepherd:
20 Now may the God of peace who by the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 equip you with every good thing to do his will, working in you what is pleasing before him through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen (Hebrews 13:20-21).
I am always very nervous when men who are called pastors use John chapter 10 of themselves. Christ alone is the true, good, and great Shepherd. In Peter’s words, He is the Chief Shepherd:
1 So as your fellow-elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings and as one who shares in the glory that will be revealed, I urge the elders among you: 2 give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. 3 And do not lord it over those entrusted to you but be examples to the flock. 4 Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away (1 Peter 5:1-4).
We are, at best, undershepherds. If we truly love our Lord, then we, like Peter, will devote ourselves to the passion of our Lord—shepherding His flock:
15 Then when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these do?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus said a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus told him, “Shepherd my sheep.” 17 Jesus said a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” and said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the solemn truth, when you were young, you tied your clothes around you and went wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will tie you up and bring you where you do not want to go.” 19 (Now Jesus said this to indicate clearly by what kind of death Peter was going to glorify God.) After he said this, Jesus told Peter, “Follow me” (John 21:15-19).
When we shepherd His flock, we should do so as He did. We should give special care and attention to the wandering, the hurting, the sick, the weak. We should “lay down our lives,” giving of ourselves, seeking the best interest of the sheep. May God grant that each of us who know and love Him will take up His work of shepherding His sheep. At the same time, let us never cease being sheep who know and follow the voice of the Great Shepherd.
152 In John 1:36, John the Baptist identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God,” but now He speaks of Himself as the “Good Shepherd.”
153 Israel is called God’s flock (Psalm 74:1; 78:52; 79:13; 95:7; 100:3). God is described as Israel’s Shepherd (see Psalm 23; 77:20; 78:52; 80:1; 107:31-32, 39-42). Moses (and next Joshua) served God as shepherds of the nation Israel (see Numbers 27:15-17), as did David (Psalm 78:70-71). God even employed the leadership of pagan’s so that He could call Cyrus His “shepherd” (Isaiah 44:28). Under divine judgment, Israel is described as sheep without a shepherd (Jeremiah 10:21; 50:6; Ezekiel 34:5-6; Zechariah 10:2; 11:1-17). Those who led Israel astray were also referred to as “shepherds” (Jeremiah 23:1f.; 50:6; Ezekiel 34:10f.; Zechariah 10:3). God promised to restore Israel by sending One who would be their “shepherd” (Isaiah 40:9-11; Jeremiah 23:3-8; 31:10; Micah 2:12-13).
154 See, for example: Matthew 2:6; 7:15; 9:36; 10:6, 16; 12:11-12; 15:24; 18:12-13; 25:32-33; 26:31.
157 “Some have felt that there is little connection between the opening of this chapter and the end of the preceding one. Various reconstructions have been proposed. But these are not necessary. … It is apt, accordingly, that, immediately after Israel’s shepherds have failed so conspicuously in the case of the man born blind, we should have set forth the nature and functions of the Good Shepherd. The sequence is tolerably plain.” Leon Morris, p. 499.
158 The Pharisees considered themselves the doorkeepers of the kingdom of God (see Matthew 23:13). They thought they had just “slammed the door” in the face of the man who was born blind, but in truth he just found the “door” in Christ and entered into eternal life.
159 It seems to me that Matthew 11:12 may well be speaking of those who would break into the sheepfold.
160 John reminds us that it was not so clear to those who heard Jesus as He spoke these words (verse 6). Some never understood, and even our Lord’s disciples did not really understand until after His death, burial, and resurrection.
161 See John 1:11.
162 “When Jesus says, ‘I—emphatic; i.e., I alone—am the door of the sheep,’ he means that he is the only One through whom anyone obtains legitimate access. There simply is no other entrance.” William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), vol. 2, p. 107.
163 “According to Hegesippus, a second-century writer, James the half-brother of Jesus was executed by Jewish opponents, in part because of his answer to the question, ‘What is the gate (thyra, as in Jn. 10:7, 9) of Jesus?’ (by which they probably meant the gate of which Jesus spoke). When James answered in terms reminiscent of Matthew 26:64, he was thrown off the temple and, still alive, was stoned to death (H. E. II. xxiii. 12-19). Whatever the reliability of this report, it attests that Jesus did indeed speak of himself as the door or gate.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 389.
164 There is a footnote here in the NET Bible, indicating that the verb is present tense (“are”), not past tense (“were”). Morris comments, “We should almost certainly take ‘before me’ as part of the imagery, rather than as indicating Jesus’ predecessors as religious leaders. The shepherd comes to the fold for his sheep (vv. 2f.) first thing in the morning. All who preceded him accordingly must be thieves and the like working in the darkness. All the more is this likely to be the case in that Jesus does not say that they ‘were’ but that they ‘are’ thieves and robbers. The emphasis is on His own day.” Morris, p. 507.
166 “There is no good reason to restrict the meaning of the verb in this passage, as if it meant no more than, ‘he will be safe.’ To be sure, safety is implied also in the words, and will go in and out; but this is only part of the meaning. Not only will he go in and out, i.e., experience perfect freedom from all real harm and danger, and this even in the small affairs of every-day living, and feel himself entirely at home in the daily routine of God’s people (see especially the beautiful words of Ps. 121:8), but in addition, he will find pasture; i.e., life and abundance, as the following verse indicates. The pasture which the true sheep finds in the study of the Word is certainly included.” Hendriksen, vol. 2, p. 109.
167 “By going in and out, Scripture often denotes all the actions of the life, as we say in French, aller et venir, to go and come, which means, to dwell. These words, therefore, present to us a twofold advantage of the Gospel, that our souls shall find pasture in it, which otherwise become faint and famished, and are fed with nothing but wind; and, next, because he will faithfully protect and guard us against the attacks of wolves and robbers.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 7: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc., n.d.), p. 772.
169 “This is a proverbial way of insisting that there is only one means of receiving eternal life (the Synoptics might have preferred to speak of entering the kingdom, although entering into life is also attested there), only one source of knowledge of God, only one fount of spiritual nourishment, only one basis for spiritual security—Jesus alone.” Carson, p. 385.
170 “Jesus continues, I am the good shepherd, really: the shepherd, the good one. The adjective is stressed! This adjective, however, is not agaqo" but kalo". The basic meaning of this word is beautiful. Here it indicates excellent. This shepherd answers to the ideal both in his character and in his work. And he is the only one in his class.” Hendriksen, vol. 2, p. 110.
171 “The words ‘for (hyper) the sheep’ suggest sacrifice. The preposition, itself ambiguous, in John always occurs in a sacrificial context, whether referring to the death of Jesus (6:51; 10:11, 15; 11:50ff.; 17:19; 18:14), of Peter (13:37-38), or of a man prepared to die for his friend (15:13). In no case does this suggest a death with merely exemplary significance; in each case the death envisaged is on behalf of someone else. The shepherd does not die for his sheep to serve as an example, throwing himself off a cliff in a grotesque and futile display while bellowing, ‘See how much I love you!’ No, the assumption is that the sheep are in mortal danger; that in their defence the shepherd loses his life; that by his death they are saved. That, and that alone, is what makes him the good shepherd.” Carson, p. 386.
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The preposition is uper, a word which has the root-meaning over. In the Fourth Gospel it is always used with the genitive. Thus used, its meaning pendulates all the way from the colorless concerning (1:30), through for the benefit of and the closely related for the sake of (6:51; 11:4; 17:19), to the very meaningful instead of (see 10:11, 15; 11:50, 51, 52; 13:37, 38; 15:13; 18:14). However, it is probably incorrect to say that this preposition in itself ever means instead of. That is its resultant connotation when it is used in certain contexts. The good shepherd lays down his life for the benefit of the sheep, but the only way in which he can benefit the sheep, saving them from everlasting destruction and imparting everlasting life to them, is by dying instead of them, as we learn from Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45, where the preposition anti (instead of, in exchange for) is used. It is easy to see how by a very gradual transition for the benefit of or in behalf of may become instead of. Thus, in the papyri the scribe who writes a document in behalf of someone who cannot write is writing it instead of that unlettered individual.” Hendriksen, vol. 2, pp. 110-111.
172 “‘Hireling’ is perhaps a little too strong for the word, as this has connotations in the English that are missing from the Greek. In the only place where the word is used in the New Testament apart from this verse and the next it refers to fishermen working for pay (Mark 1:20; MM cite its use for men paid to carry bricks). But certainly it indicates someone other than the owner. It speaks of a man whose interest is in what he is paid for doing his job rather than in the job itself.” Morris, p. 510.
177 “The fuller explanation in these verses cannot easily be accommodated as long as we think of vv. 1-5 as a cohesive narrative parable, and the verses before us as mere explanation of them. Now Jesus is not the shepherd who goes through the gate; rather, he is the gate (v. 7). Before, the shepherd led the sheep out of the fold; now he leads them in and out (v. 9). Hired hands are introduced (v. 12), along with sheep from other sheep pens (v. 16), and the death of the shepherd (v. 15). The tensions are largely alleviated when we recognize that the expansions in these verses are not predicated on a single, narrative parable, but are further metaphorical uses of the three dominant features of the shepherding language introduced in vv. 1-5—viz. The gate, which generates further metaphorical expansion in vv. 7-10; the shepherd, whose parallels with Jesus are further elucidated in vv. 11-18; and the notion of his own sheep, further expanded in vv. 26-30. This last section is placed a little further on in the chapter because it admirably explains the Jews’ unbelief of Jesus’ messianic claims. In short, John 10 makes sense as it stands, as long as we do not approach it with false expectations of a formally coherent narrative.” Carson, pp. 383-384.
178 “The ensuing verses suggest that All who ever came before me excludes from the indictment such leaders as Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others who heard God’s voice in former times, and who served him faithfully in the terms of the covenant to which they had sworn allegiance. Nevertheless, the expression surely hints at more than despotic local leaders who care more for their own gain than for the sheep in their care (cf. ‘thieves and robbers’ in v. 8). It sounds, rather, as if reference is being made to messianic pretenders who promise the people freedom but who lead them into war, suffering and slavery.” Carson, pp. 384-385.
181 “The good shepherd also has other sheep. He has them even now because they have been given to him by the Father in the decree of predestination from eternity (6:37, 39; 17:6, 24). That is also the reason why even before they are gathered out they can be called his sheep.” Hendriksen, vol. 2, p. 113.
182 “The outgathering or election of a remnant is taught in many Old Testament passages: Jer. 3:14; 23:3; Am. 3:12; 5:15; Mic. 2:12; 5:3, 7, 8; 7:18-20; Hab. 2:4; Zeph. 3:12, 13; Hag. 1:12, 14; Zech. 8:6, 12; 13:8, 9. In Mic. 2:12 this outgathering of the remnant is even associated with the idea of the shepherd. Cf. Am. 3:12.” Hendriksen, vol. 2, p. 107.
“The great blessing of Pentecost and the Gospel Age which followed it is here predicted. It is a wonderful theme. In a sense it was predicted even in the Old Testament: Gen. 12:3; Ps. 72:8, 9; 87:4-6; Is. 60:3; Joel 2:28; Zeph. 2:9; Mal. 1:11. But there the idea that elect from among the Gentiles will come in on the basis of equality with the elect of Israel does not receive emphasis.” Hendriksen, vol. 2, p. 114.
186 Is it not interesting that the chapter in John which is so “Calvinistic,” and which stresses so strongly the sovereignty of God in the salvation of men, is also one of the most winsome and attracting texts in the Bible?