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13. Exegetical Commentary on John 10


[3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 - 12:50)]

  • [2 B Selected highlights from the later part of Jesus' public ministry: conflict and controversy (5:1 -10:42)]

    • 7 C Jesus as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (10:1-21)

      8 C Jesus at the Feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem (10:22-39)

      9 C Conclusion to Jesus' public ministry: Jesus withdraws across the Jordan to the place where his ministry began (10:40-42)

      • 1 D The parable of the sheepfold (10:1-6)

        2 D Jesus as the Door of the sheep (10:7-10)

        3 D Jesus as the Good Shepherd (10:11-18)

        4 D The response of the Jewish leaders (10:19-21)

        1 D Jesus as the Messiah (10:22-31)

        2 D Jesus as the Son of God (10:32-39)


Ackermann, J. S., "The Rabbinic Interpretation of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John: John 10:34," Harvard Theological Review 59 (1966): 186-91.

Bammel, E., "'John did no miracle': John 10, 41," in Miracles: Cambridge Studies in their Philosophy and History, ed. C. F. D. Moule (London: Mowbray, 1965): 197-202.

Birdsall, J. N., "John x. 29," Journal of Theological Studies 11 (1960): 342-44.

Bishop, E. F., "The Door of the Sheep--John x. 7-9," Expository Times 71 (1959/60): 307-309.

Bruns, J. E., "The Discourse on the Good Shepherd and the Rite of Ordination," American Ecclesiastical Review 149 (1963): 386-91.

Derrett, J. D. M., "The Good Shepherd: St. John's Use of Jewish Halakah and Haggadah," Studia Theologica 27 (1973): 25-50.

Emerton, J. A., "Melchizedek and the Gods: Fresh Evidence for the Jewish Background of John X, 34-36," Journal of Theological Studies 17 (1966): 399-401.

Guilding, A., The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship: A Study of the Relation of St. John's Gospel to the Ancient Jewish Lectionary System (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960).

Hanson, A. T., "John's Citation of Psalm LXXXII," New Testament Studies 11 (1964/65): 158-62.

Hanson, A. T., "John's Citation of Psalm LXXXII Reconsidered," New Testament Studies 13 (1966/67): 363-67.

Jungkuntz, R., "An Approach to the Exegesis of John 10:34-36," Concordia Theological Monthly 35 (1964): 556-65.

Martin, J. P., "John 10:1-10," Interpretation 32 (1978): 171-75.

Meyer, P. W., "A Note on John 10, 1-18," Journal of Biblical Literature 75 (1956): 232-35.

Pollard, T. E., "The Exegesis of John x. 30 in the Early Trinitarian Controversies," New Testament Studies 3 (1956/57): 334-49.

Quasten, J., "The Parable of the Good Shepherd: John 10:1-21," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 10 (1948): 1-12; 151-69.

Reynolds, S. M., "The Supreme Importance of the Doctrine of Election and the Eternal Security of the Elect as Taught in the Gospel of John," Westminster Theological Journal 28 (1965): 38-41.

Robinson, J. A. T., "The Parable of the Shepherd (John 10.1-5)," Zeitschrift fur die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 46 (1955): 233-40.

Villiers, J. L. de, "The Shepherd and the Flock," Neotestamentica 2 (1968): 89-103.

Whittacker, J., "A Hellenistic Context for Jo 10, 29," Vigilae Christianae 24 (1970): 241-60.


    • 7 C Jesus as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (10:1-21)

The Place of 10:1-21 in the Narrative:

The location of this story has often disturbed commentators who fail to see links with what precedes and what follows. Recall that we mentioned at 9:1 that Jesus was still in Jerusalem in the 2-month period between the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of the Dedication (10:22). It seems very clear that 10:1-21 is to be related to the preceding: no new audience is mentioned or suggested; it seems evident (10:1) that Jesus is continuing his remarks to the Pharisees with whom he had been speaking in 9:41. This is further indicated by 10:21, where some in the audience even recall the healing of the blind man, while others repeat the charges of demon-possession that have been made of Jesus in chapter 8.

It is true that there is an abrupt change of topic between chapters 9 and 10, from "light" to "sheep and shepherd," but although the imagery has changed, 10:1-21 is still a polemic against the Jewish leaders, who are to be identified with the "thieves and robbers" of 10:1 and following. In fact, chapter 9 has provided a perfect illustration of these very actions: instead of properly caring for the man born blind, the Pharisees have thrown him out (9:34). Jesus, in contrast, as the good Shepherd, found him (9:35) and led him to safe pasture. Just like the sheep in 10:4-5 will not follow a stranger because they do not know his voice, so the man born blind refused to listen to the Pharisees, but turned to Jesus, an illustration of the sheep who recognize the voice of their true master.

But what about the relationship of 10:1-21 to the incidents at the Feast of the Dedication following (10:22-31)? Note that 10:26-27, spoken by Jesus at the Feast of the Dedication, recall this section. Also, the Feast itself recalled the rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus in 165-164 BC when he drove out the Syrians who had for 3 years profaned the temple by erecting the idol of Baal Shamem in it. Some of the high priests of that time, like Jason and Menelaus, had betrayed their office by contributing to the Syrian desecration. These, too, may have been suggested by Jesus' references in 10:1-21 to thieves, robbers, and hirelings who are false shepherds. Finally (and most importantly) however, 10:1-21 serves as a bridge between the Feast of Tabernacles (and its aftermath) and the Feast of the Dedication because of the messianic allusions involved. The basic proclamations Jesus makes concerning himself at the Feast of Dedication concern his identity as Messiah (10:22-31) and Son of God (10:32-39).

Aileen Guilding argued that all the regular readings on the Sabbath nearest Dedication were concerned with the theme of the sheep and the shepherds.95 In particular Ezek 34, which is the most important Old Testament background passage, served as the reading from the prophets at the time of Dedication in the second year of the cycle.

Thus 10:1-21 has a 2-fold function: as a bridge it looks back to chapters 8-9; at the same time it looks forward to 10:22-39.

      • 1 D The Parable of the sheepfold (10:1-6)

10:1 J. H. Bernard maintained that the double ajmhvn never introduces a totally new topic in the Fourth Gospel.96 In both 3:11 and 5:19 it represents only a new stage in Jesus' comments on the same topic already under discussion. This would support our view (discussed above) that the parable and following discussion serves as a bridge between the events of chapters 8-9 and the events at the Feast of the Dedication in chapter 10.

eij" thVn aujlhVn There were several types of sheepfolds in use in Palestine. Here it seems to be a courtyard in front of a house (note the word aujlhv), surrounded by a stone wall (often topped with briars for protection).

10:2-3 diaV th'" quvra" If a man does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs over the wall, it is clear that he does not belong there. He is a thief and a robber. But the man who enters by the door is recognized as the shepherd, and he does have a right to be there. The doorkeeper opens the door for him because he is known to him. There have been many attempts to identify the doorkeeper, none of which are convincing. It seems more likely that there are some details in this parable which are there for the sake of the story, necessary as parts of the overall picture but without symbolic significance.

Palestinian shepherds, according to Bernard, frequently have pet names for their favorite sheep based on individual characteristics: "Long-ears," "White nose," "Blackie," etc. The sheep recognize their shepherd's voice and respond to his call.

10:4 Bernard and others have suggested that there is more than one flock in the fold, and there would be a process of separation where each shepherd calls out his own flock. This may also be suggested by the mention of a doorkeeper in verse 3 since only the larger sheepfolds would have such a guard. But the Gospel of John never mentions a distinction among the sheep in this fold; in fact (10:16) there are other sheep which are to be brought in, but they are to be one flock and one shepherd.

10:5 ajllotrivw/ When a stranger attempts to take the sheep out, however, they will not follow him because they do not recognize his voice. In fact, the opposite is true; the sheep run away from him.

10:6 Note that the ones to whom the parable is addressed, presumably "the Jews"--the Pharisees of 9:40--do not understand it. Jesus responds with further explanation, first of himself as the Door (10:7-10), then as the good Shepherd (10:11-18).

paroimivan John uses this word again in 16:25, 29. This term does not occur in the synoptic gospels, where parabolhv is used. Nevertheless it is similar, denoting a short narrative with figurative or symbolic meaning. Jesus' opponents do not understand it (providing another example of the Fourth Evangelist's use of misunderstanding as a literary technique). But how could Jesus' opponents understand, when they were not of his sheep (cf. 10:26)?

Primary Old Testament passages related to the parable:

(1) The prayer of Moses in Num 27:15-18: "May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out and come in before them, and who will lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep which have no shepherd." So the LORD said to Moses, 'Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him'". Note the significance of the name Joshua.

(2) Ezek 34:1-31. Note especially verses 2-5, 8-10, and 11-16. Verses 11-12 state: "For thus says the Lord GOD, 'Behold, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for my sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day.'" The messianic context in Ezekiel chapter 35 talks about the rebirth of national Israel and chapter 36 the new covenant.

      • 2 D Jesus as the Door of the sheep (10:7-10)

In response to the lack of understanding by his audience (verse 6) Jesus goes on. His remarks do not constitute an explanation of what he has previously said so much as an expansion.

10:7 ejgwv eijmi hJ quvra tw'n probavtwn The statement is unusual; we would have expected "I am the Shepherd of the sheep." Verse 9 clarifies the meaning: the point is that Jesus is the door through which the sheep pass as they go in and out of the fold.

10:8 pavnte" o{soi hlqon proV ejmou' The reference to "all who go before me" is a little difficult to understand, since the first and most obvious reference would be to Jesus? predecessors, the prophets and saints of the OT. But Jesus could hardly be saying this of them; his attitude toward such people is clear in John 5:46 and 8:56. The use of the present tense eijsivn is an important clue to the most likely meaning: the religious leaders of Jesus' own day, who came in the darkness before the Light.

10:9 ejgwv eijmi hJ quvra: Here Jesus clarifies the meaning of his statement in verse 7. He is the Door through which the sheep pass in and out of the fold and find pasture. But if Jesus is the Door, we may ask, what does the "going forth and entering in" of the sheep refer to? Note the last phrase, nomhVn euJrhvsei-- "they shall find pasture". In Ezek 34:13-14, a millennial context, "pasture" refers to the mountain heights of Israel after the restoration of the nation. Ezek 34:15 refers to the rest of the Kingdom. The implication is that Jesus here alludes to the fact that he is the means of entry into the Kingdom. Through him, through his person and work, his sheep will find sustenance (nourishment--cf. 21:15-17) and rest (in the Kingdom).

10:10 Note: Verse 10 has sometimes been taken to imply that there are various levels of experience within "eternal life"; it seems much more likely, however, that what is being emphasized is merely the abundant and overflowing quality of the life which Jesus came to give. Cf. Rom 5:20.

      • 3 D Jesus as the Good Shepherd (10:11-18)

10:11 Here, the figure changes. Jesus, who in verses 7-10 was the Door, now becomes the Shepherd. (Compare Ezek 34:11-12, where Yahweh himself is the Shepherd.) At the very mildest Jesus' statement would constitute a messianic claim; at the strongest, it would amount to a claim to identification with God--that is, a claim to deity.

Jesus speaks openly of his vicarious death twice in this section (10:11, 15). Note the contrast: the thief takes the life of the sheep (10:10), the good Shepherd lays down his own life for the sheep. Jesus is not speaking generally here, but specifically: he has his own substitutionary death on the cross in view. For a literal shepherd with a literal flock, the shepherd's death would have spelled disaster for the sheep; in this instance it spells life for them (Compare the worthless shepherd of Zech 11:17, by contrast).

10:12-13 oJ misqwtov" Jesus contrasts the behavior of the shepherd with that of the hired servant. This is one who is simply paid to do a job; he has no other interest in the sheep and is certainly not about to risk his life for them. When they are threatened, he simply runs away.

Note the unusual use of the negative oujk with the participle, which seems to add emphasis (the normal negative with participles is mhv).

10:14-15 Here Jesus identifies himself again as the Good Shepherd, but he also compares the relationship and mutual knowledge he shares with the sheep to the relationship and intimate knowledge he shares with his heavenly Father.

10:16 a[lla provbata e[cw This statement almost certainly refers to Gentiles. Jesus has sheep in the fold who are Jewish; there are other sheep which, while not of the same fold, belong to him also. This recalls the mission of the Son in 3:16-17, which was to save the world--not just the nation of Israel. Such an emphasis would seem particularly appropriate to the Evangelist if he is writing to a non-Palestinian and primarily non-Jewish audience.

"There shall be one flock, one shepherd" For John, the unity of the one flock is not a given unity, naturally existing, but a unity created in and by Jesus. It is the end result of what Jesus has done (cf. Eph 2:11-22).

10:17 The Father loves the Son because the Son is completely obedient to the will of the Father, even up to the point of death. The use of i{na here should probably go as far as purpose. Jesus' death, as the i{na-clause indicates, is completed by resurrection (i{na pavlin lavbw aujthvn). This reflects the Johannine cycle of suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification which is viewed comprehensively as Jesus' return to the Father.

10:18 oujdeiV" ai[rei aujthVn ajp= ejmou' Jesus explains that his death is voluntary. He could not possibly be harmed if it were not [compare 19:11]. Authority to lay down his life and take it up again was given to him by the Father [compare a[nwqen, 19:11].

      • 4 D The response of the Jewish leaders (10:19-21)

10:19-21 In 10:6 the response of the listeners was lack of understanding. This time it is division (scivsma). These verses recall previous reactions to Jesus where there was division (7:12, 7:25-27, 7:31, 7:40-41, and 9:16) as well as the charge of demon-possession (7:20, 8:48). Also, it provides a transition to Jesus' teaching at the Feast of the Dedication, where again he will meet opposition to his messianic claims. Once more, we see the judgment precipitated by the presence of the Light (cf. 3:19-21).

    • 8 C Jesus at the Feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem (10:22-39)

Background and Setting:

As mentioned before in the discussion of the parable of the sheepfold and the discourse on the Good Shepherd in relation to the following material, the Feast of the Dedication (or Hanukkah) was a feast celebrating annually the Maccabean victories of 165-164 BC when Judas Maccabeus drove out the Syrians, rebuilt the altar, and rededicated the Temple on 25 Chislev (1 Macc. 4:41-61). From a historical standpoint, it was the last great deliverance the Jewish people had experienced, and it came at a time when least expected. Josephus ends his account of the institution of the festival with the following statement: "And from that time to the present we observe this festival, which we call the festival of Lights, giving this name to it, I think, from the fact that the right to worship appeared to us at a time when we hardly dared hope for it."97

The Place in the Narrative:

As far as the Gospel of John is concerned, we are nearing the end of Jesus' public ministry; the final scenes are being played out. In them we see the ultimate and final rejection by the Jewish authorities of Jesus and all that he stood for. There is a two-fold emphasis in 10:22-39 on the revelation of who Jesus is: he is Messiah (22-31) and Son of God (32-39).

      • 1 D Jesus as the Messiah (10:22-31)

10:22 taV ejgkaivnia The Greek name for the Feast literally means "renewal" and was used to translate Hanukkah which means "dedication." The Greek noun, with its related verbs, was the standard term used in the LXX for the consecration of the altar of the Tabernacle (Num 7:10-11), the altar of the Temple of Solomon (I Kgs 8:63; 2 Chr 7:5), and the altar of the Second Temple (Ezra 6:16). The word is thus connected with the consecration of all the houses of God in the history of the nation of Israel.

ceimwVn h The feast began on 25 Chislev, in November-December of our modern calendar.

10:23 ejn th'/ stoa'/ tou' Solomw'no" This was a portico or colonnade. It was a roofed structure supported on columns or pillars, and would have given shelter from the wind in the winter weather.

10:24 thVn yuchVn hJmw'n ai[rei"? The primary point this section is found in 10:24: the Jewish authorities gathered around Jesus and said to him, "How long (literally) will you 'take away our life'? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." The use of the phrase thVn yuchVn hJmw'n ai[rei"? meaning "to keep in suspense" is not well attested, although it certainly fits the context here. In modern Greek the phrase means "to annoy, bother." Hoskyns suggests that John here may intend a word-play on the literal sense (which the speakers, of course, are not aware of)--although Jesus lays down his own life for those who follow him (cf. 10:11,15) He also provokes judgment and thus takes away the life of those who reject him.

The basic question the Jewish authorities were asking concerned whether Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

10:25 Note Jesus' response to their question in two parts in this and the following verse: 10:25 (here) "I told you and you do not believe."

10:26 Jesus' reply continues: "the reason you do not believe is because you are not of my sheep" (cf. 10:14).

10:27 The sheep hear (ajkouvw, in the sense of "obey") their shepherd's voice: this aspect of the sheep-shepherd relationship has already been stressed in 10:3, 4, 5, and 16.

10:28 zwhVn aijwvnion The gift which Jesus gives to those who are his own is "eternal life". This is not a new concept for the reader of the Gospel, who will have encountered it before. Note the strength of the negative in the phrase ouj mhV ajpovlwntai eij" toVn aijw'na--"they shall not possibly perish for ever". We are not told who it is who might try to snatch the believer out of Jesus' hand, but the implication is that the forces of evil are actively at work: aJrpavzw has the idea of grabbing or snatching violently.98 The believer has Jesus' assurance, however, that this attempt will not succeed.

10:29 ejk th'" ceiroV" tou' patrov" Now the image changes slightly: the flock is no longer in Jesus' hand, but in the Father's hand. This gives added assurance, because the Father is greater still. Those in the flock are eternally secure, kept by the Father's power.

10:30-31 Jesus' identification with the Father in verse 30 seems to be understood clearly by the Jewish authorities--note their response in verse 31: they took up stones to stone him for blasphemy. They had done this once before, in 8:59.

e{n ejsmen This is a significant assertion with trinitarian implications. e{n is neuter, not masculine, so the assertion is not that Jesus and the Father are one person, but one 'thing'. Identity of the two persons is not being asserted, but essential unity (unity of essence) is.

Jesus' identification with the Father also provides the transition to the second phase of Jesus' self-revelation at the feast (see the following section).

      • 2 D Jesus as the Son of God (10:32-39)

10:32 diaV poi'on aujtw'n e[rgon ejmeV liqavzete? In the past (5:17-18, 8:58-59) statements of Jesus intimately associating himself with God have provoked the Jewish authorities to attempt to kill him. Jesus here answers [ajpekrivqh] their attempt by recalling the works he has been doing; however, their objection is not to his works but to his blasphemous words (verse 33).

10:33 periV blasfhmiva" This is the first time the official charge of blasphemy is voiced openly in the Gospel (although it was implicit in 8:59).

10:34 The problem in this verse concerns Jesus' quote from Psalm 82:6. It is important to look at the Old Testament context: the whole line reads, "I say, you are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you." Jesus will pick up on the term "sons of the most high" in 10:36, where he refers to himself as the Son of God. The psalm was understood in rabbinic circles as an attack on unjust judges, who, though they have been given the title "gods" because of their quasi-divine function of exercising judgment, they will die just like other men.

What is the argument here? It is often thought to be as follows: if it was an Old Testament practice to refer to men like the judges as gods, and not blasphemy, why do the Jews object when this term is applied to Jesus? This really doesn't seem to fit, since if that were the case, Jesus would not be making any claim for "divinity" for himself over and above any other man. It seems more likely that this is a case of arguing from the lesser to the greater. The reason the Old Testament judges could be called gods is because they were vehicles of the word of God (cf. 10:35). But granting that premise, Jesus deserves much more than they to be called God. He is the Word incarnate, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world to save the world (10:36). In light of the prologue to the Gospel of John, it seems this interpretation would have been most natural for the Evangelist. If it is permissable to call men "gods" because they were the vehicles of the word of God, how much more permissable is it to use the word "god" of him who is the Word of God? This type of argument from the lesser to the greater was a common form of rabbinic argument.

10:35 ouj duvnatai luqh'nai hJ grafhv Not only does Jesus appeal to the OT to defend himself against the charge of blasphemy, but he also adds that the Scripture cannot be "broken". In this context he does not explain precisely what is meant by "broken," but it is not too hard to determine. Jesus' argument depends upon the exact word used in the context of Ps 82:6. If any other word for "judge" had been used in the psalm, his argument would have been meaningless. Since the Scriptures do use this word in Psalm 82:6, the argument is binding, because they cannot be "broken" in the sense of being shown to be in error. This is an important text in the discussion of the inerrancy of the Bible.

10:36 ajpevsteilen eij" toVn kovsmon Once again Jesus refers to his divinely-appointed mission: it was the Father who "set him apart" (hJgivasen) and "sent" him into the world (compare 3:16-17).

10:37-38 ka]n ejmoiV mhV pisteuvhte, toi'" e[rgoi" pisteuvete Jesus says that in the final analysis, the works he does should indicate whether he is truly from the Father. If the authorities cannot believe in him, it would be better to believe in the works he does than not to believe at all. Note the double use of ginwvskw in the phrase i{na gnw'te kaiV ginwvskhte: the aorist is best taken as ingressive, with the meaning "come to know," while the present is progressive-- "and keep on knowing."

10:39 =Ezhvtoun ou aujtoVn pavlin piavsai Once again we have the response: the Jewish authorities sought to seize Jesus. It is not clear whether they simply sought to "arrest" him, or were renewing their attempt to stone him (cf. 10:31) by seizing him and taking him out to be stoned. In either event, Jesus eluded their grasp. Nor is it clear whether we are to understand Jesus' escape as a miracle. If so, the text gives little indication and even less description. What is clear is that until his "hour" comes, Jesus is completely safe from the hands of men: his enemies are powerless to touch him until it is permitted them.

    • 9 C Conclusion to Jesus' public ministry: Jesus withdraws across the Jordan to the place where his ministry began (10:40-42)

10:40 eij" toVn povpon o{pou h =Iwavnnh" toV prw'ton baptivzwn This refers to Bethany which was beyond the Jordan River (cf. 1:28). The author of the Gospel goes to some length to describe the location as the same one where John was baptizing at the first. These verses deliberately form an inclusion with the opening scene of Jesus' ministry in 1:19-29.

10:41 pavnta deV o{sa eipen =Iwavnnh" periV touvtou ajlhqh' h The statement is interesting in light of the fact that Jesus had not yet shown himself to be the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world (1:20) or baptized with the Holy Spirit (1:33) since the Spirit was not yet (7:39). Possibly this is still proleptic, looking ahead to the hour of Jesus' glory which will soon begin. More likely, the things the multitude remembers that John bore witness to should be limited to Jesus' messianic claims. That is, John testified that "after me comes one whose sandal-thong I am not worthy to untie (1:27)." Note again how John's role was entirely one of bearing witness to who Jesus is.

10:42 kaiV polloiV ejpivsteusan eij" aujtoVn ejkei' Note the response. Many of these people (in contrast to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem) trusted in him there. After coming to his own and being rejected (cf. 1:11) Jesus returns once more "across the Jordan" and ironically finds the faith that was lacking in his own country.

Furthermore, for the Evangelist, this section serves to show how completely Jesus controlled his own destiny. He would not be killed by mob violence; when he would return to Jerusalem he would do so of his own accord and with the certain knowledge he was going up to Jerusalem to die. It was not until the final Passover that the hour appointed by the Father would come.

95 Aileen Guilding, The Fourth Gospel and Jewish Worship: A Study of the Relation of St. John's Gospel to the Ancient Jewish Lectionary System (Oxford: Clarendon, 1960). Later scholars have called her work into question, however, due to problems dating the materials of the Jewish lectionary.

96 J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John (ICC; Edinburgh: Clark, 1928), 2:348.

97 Antiquities 12. 316-325.

98 BDAG 134 s.v. aJrpavzw.

Related Topics: Christology

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