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Lesson 54: The True Shepherd and His Sheep (John 10:1-6)

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May 11, 2014

When I was in seminary, my professors in preaching classes all strongly emphasized the need to be clear when you preach. One professor often repeated, “A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew.” In other words, if you’re slightly fuzzy in your preaching, your congregation will be completely lost in the fog.

While I agree with that and I work hard to be clear, I sometimes wonder what kind of grade in preaching class the greatest preacher who has ever lived would have received. And I wonder whether He would be well-received as a preacher in modern evangelical churches. The reason I say that is that Jesus often left His audience—including His inner circle of followers—confused about what He was saying. It’s not that Jesus was unclear, of course. He knew the truth of God as no one else has ever known it. But often He deliberately spoke in cryptic language, leaving His hearers scratching their heads about what He meant. That was the case in our text, as verse 6 shows: “This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand what those things were which He had been saying to them.”

This text is the closest thing to a parable in John’s Gospel. It’s more like an allegory or a symbolic illustration. But Jesus often spoke in parables. Matthew 13:34 says, “All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable.” Parables revealed the truth to those who really sought it, but it also concealed the truth from scoffers and those who were ambivalent about it. In verse 6, “they” refers to the Pharisees, with whom Jesus was speaking in John 9:41. They didn’t get it. But there are still a lot of divergent opinions among commentators today on the exact interpretation of the details here.

One key to understanding this passage is to view it in its context. John did not divide his Gospel into chapters and verses, so we should not draw a line between the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10. There is no transitional phrase, such as “after these things,” or other time markers. When we get to 10:22, John designates the time as the Feast of Dedication, which took place in the winter. But verses 1-21 were probably connected with the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths, 7:2), where the events of chapters 7-9 took place. John 10:21 refers back to the healing of the blind man in chapter 9. And, Jesus’ words, “Truly, truly,” which begin chapter 10, are never used elsewhere to begin a new discourse (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 501).

So we should understand John 10:1-21 as being closely related to the events in John 9, where Jesus healed the man born blind. The connection is: The Pharisees, who were the religious leaders in Israel, should have been faithful shepherds over God’s flock, but they had failed. The story of the blind man illustrates this when they get frustrated with his testimony concerning Jesus and throw him out of the temple. Not once did they rejoice over the wonderful fact that this man’s eyes had been opened. Rather, they were more concerned that Jesus had violated their legalistic Sabbath rules than they were about this man.

We saw the same thing in chapter 5, when Jesus healed the lame man by the Pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath. The religious leaders didn’t rejoice that this poor man had been healed. Rather, they wanted to get Jesus for violating their Sabbath rules. They also reveal their contempt for the people they should have been tenderly shepherding when they say (7:49), “But this crowd which does not know the Law is accursed.” As shepherds they should have taught the people, but instead they ridiculed them for their ignorance. They used their power to keep the people in fear, threatening them with excommunication if they confessed Jesus to be the Christ (9:22). And we see their arrogance and lack of concern for the flock when they told the blind man (9:34), “You were born entirely in sins, and are you teaching us?” These Pharisees were not faithful shepherds over the Lord’s flock.

So in John 10, Jesus draws a sharp contrast between them as false shepherds, whom He calls thieves and robbers (10:1), and Himself as the true shepherd. Many Old Testament passages picture the Lord as the shepherd over His people (notably, Psalm 23). If in the Old Testament the Lord is the shepherd of His people and in the New Testament, Jesus is the shepherd, it shows that Jesus is the Lord.

Probably Jesus paints the picture in John 10 against the backdrop of Ezekiel 34, where the Lord castigates the religious leaders of Israel for being self-centered, greedy shepherds who used the flock for their own comfort and gain, but failed to care tenderly for the hurting. The Lord pronounces judgment on those false shepherds and promises (Ezek. 34:23), “Then I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David, and he will feed them; he will feed them himself and be their shepherd.” That prophecy was fulfilled by the Son of David, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the good shepherd of His sheep (John 10:11).

So John 10 gives us a symbolic picture of what has just happened in John 9. It also affirms the blindness of the Pharisees, who don’t understand this picture (9:40-41; 10:6). John 10:1-18 falls into three sections: In 10:1-6, Jesus contrasts Himself as the true shepherd with these self-centered false shepherds. In 10:7-10, He portrays Himself as the door of the sheepfold, who, in contrast to these false shepherds, came to give abundant life to His sheep. In 10:11-18, He explains how as the good shepherd He lays down His own life to provide life for His sheep. Today we can only look at 10:1-6, which shows Jesus to be the true shepherd of Israel in contrast to these self-centered false shepherds. The point is:

Jesus’ credentials and His qualities prove Him to be the true shepherd, whom His sheep follow.

We’ll look first at Jesus’ credentials, then at His qualities, and finally at what He says about His sheep.

1. Jesus’ credentials prove Him to be the true shepherd.

“Truly, truly” (10:1) alerts us that this is something that we need to perk up and pay attention to:

A. Jesus the true shepherd warns the flock about false shepherds (10:1).

John 10:1: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbs up some other way, he is a thief and a robber.” Jesus was both rebuking the Pharisees who were listening to Him and warning His followers, including the former blind man, not to follow these false shepherds, whom Jesus calls thieves and robbers.

I read once about a seminary class that spent a semester searching the New Testament to discover which truth is emphasized more than any other. To their surprise they found that warnings against false teachers top the list, ahead of love or any other virtue. Jesus Himself warned (Matt. 7:15), “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” The metaphor pictures the deceptiveness and the self-centered destructiveness of false prophets. They fool the sheep into thinking that they are sheep, and thus gain access to the flock. But their aim is not to build up and care for the flock, but to ravage them for their own selfish purposes (see also, 2 Cor. 11:13-15; 2 Peter 2; and 1, 2, & 3 John).

Satan’s aim is never to build up or care for people! He always seeks to destroy (John 10:10; 1 Pet. 5:8). And he often uses as his agents men or women who pose as true believers to cause destruction in the church. They seem to know the Bible and teach the Bible, which gains them a hearing among those who profess to know Christ. But their teaching and their practices do not lead people toward godliness, but toward destruction.

“Thieves” and “robbers” have slightly different meanings. Thieves tend to use cunning and deception. They break into your house when you’re gone or are asleep and steal without your knowing it. Robbers are more aggressive. They hold you up at gunpoint and force you to give up your valuables. But in both cases, they don’t care about you. They only want to profit at your expense. They want to use you to further their own selfish ends.

Note two important lessons here: (1) Being grounded in sound doctrine is essential, not optional. False teachers do not wear blinking neon signs saying, “I’m going to lead you astray!” They’re subtle and just slightly off. You have to know and be able to defend from Scripture the core doctrines of the faith. And you need to know how to distinguish the core doctrines, where compromise is fatal, from secondary doctrines that are not as essential for spiritual health.

(2) Christlike shepherds warn their flocks about false teachers. If Jesus, the true shepherd, warned about false teachers, then His undershepherds must also warn about false teachers if they are faithful to Him. To put it another way, Jesus was not always “nice” and “positive.” Read Matthew 23, where He pronounces woe after woe on the scribes and Pharisees, whom He repeatedly calls “hypocrites.” Both Paul and John pointed out false teachers by name (1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17; 4:14; 3 John 9-10). People have criticized me because at times I have named false teachers or heretical groups. But if I leave it vague and general, people don’t connect the dots. I would not be a faithful shepherd if I didn’t specifically warn you about false teachers.

B. Jesus the true shepherd entered by the door (10:2).

John 10:2: “But he who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep.” The Greek construction warrants the better translation, “is the shepherd of the sheep” (Morris, p. 502). Jesus was referring to Himself as the legitimate shepherd of God’s flock because He entered the fold by the door. Some (e.g. J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], p. 175) jump down to 10:7 and identify Jesus as the door. While that’s true in 10:7, importing that identification back into 10:2 is to confuse two different metaphors. In 10:1-6, Jesus is the true shepherd who enters the fold by the door. In 10:7-10, Jesus is the door with no reference to the shepherd. Then in 10:11-18, Jesus is again the good shepherd.

To understand 10:1-5, you need to have a mental picture of a sheepfold in that day. Each village would have a common walled-in fold where every evening the different shepherds from the village would bring all their sheep. There was one door or entrance to the fold, which often was just an opening. The doorkeeper would guard the door by lying across it, making sure that wild animals or robbers would not enter to harm or steal the sheep. In the morning, the shepherds would return, the doorkeeper would open to them, and they would call their sheep out to lead them to pasture during the day.

Some commentators (e.g. Calvin) hesitate to get specific about what each figure in this allegory represents, but I think we can make some helpful identifications. The fold is Judaism or Israel. Jesus is the true shepherd, who enters the fold to lead His genuine sheep, those whom the Father has given to Him (10:27-29), out to pasture. The man born blind is an example of this. The Pharisees are the thieves and robbers, who are not genuine shepherds.

But, what does the door represent? While in 10:7, the door is Christ Himself, in 10:2 the door is the Messianic office as described and prophesied in the Old Testament, which sets forth the credentials of the coming Messiah. He would be born of the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10), a descendant of David (Isa. 9:7; Jer. 33:17). He would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2) to a virgin (Isa. 7:14). He would give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and cause the lame to walk (Isa. 35:5-6). He would be the prophet greater than Moses (Deut. 18:15). He would be a light to shine on all who are in darkness (Isa. 9:2; 42:6; 49:6). He would provide the water of God’s Spirit to thirsty souls (Isa. 44:3). John has shown us how Jesus fulfilled many of these and other Old Testament prophecies.

In his amazing little book, Science Speaks ([Moody Press], pp. 99-112), math professor Peter Stoner takes just eight Old Testament prophecies about Christ and assigns to each one conservative odds with regard to the question (p. 106), “What is the chance that any man might have lived from the day of these prophecies down to the present time and have fulfilled all eight?” He comes up with the answer of one in 1017.

Then he helps us picture this huge number. If you take 1017 silver dollars and spread them all over Texas, they would cover the entire state two feet deep. Mark one of the silver dollars, mix it into the whole, blindfold a man and tell him that he can go as far as he wants, but he must pick the one marked dollar. That is the same chance that Jesus could have fulfilled just eight Old Testament prophecies. But the reality is, Jesus fulfilled over 300 Old Testament prophecies (p. 108)! The point is, Jesus’ credentials show that He is the only person who could enter through the door of the Messianic office as prophesied in the Old Testament.

C. The doorkeeper opened to Jesus the true shepherd (10:3).

Again, some reputable commentators (Calvin, Morris) think that we are going too far to assign anyone specifically as the doorkeeper. Others say that it refers to God or the Holy Spirit or Moses. But in light of John’s Gospel, I think it is reasonable to view the doorkeeper as John the Baptist. He opened the door for Jesus to enter the fold of Judaism as their true shepherd. He was the predicted messenger, who cried out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23; Isa. 40:3; Mal. 3:1). John pointed to Jesus and said (1:29), “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He opened the door for Jesus to enter the fold of Israel.

Thus Jesus came to Israel through the door of prophetic Messianic Scripture and the doorkeeper opened to Him as the true shepherd so that He could call His sheep out of the fold. His sheep are all from Israel whom the Father had given Him (6:37, 39, 10:29). He also has other sheep (the Gentiles), whom He would gather into one flock under Him as shepherd (10:16). Thus Jesus’ credentials prove Him to be the true shepherd.

2. Jesus’ qualities prove Him to be the true shepherd.

Of course, all of Jesus’ attributes show that He is the true shepherd of His sheep. As He will go on to say (10:11-18), the sheep belong to Him because He gave His life to purchase them. But here I can only point out two of the true shepherd’s qualities:

A. Jesus the true shepherd provides personal care for His sheep, calling them by name (10:3b).

John 10:3b: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name ….” The picture here is of a Near Eastern shepherd who spent much time with his flock and who knew each sheep personally. One writer gives an account of this sort of thing (H. V. Morton, cited by Morris, p. 502, note 17):

Early one morning I saw an extraordinary sight not far from Bethlehem. Two shepherds had evidently spent the night with their flocks in a cave. The sheep were all mixed together and the time had come for the shepherds to go in different directions. One of the shepherds stood some distance from the sheep and began to call. First one, then another, then four or five animals ran towards him; and so on until he had counted his whole flock.

Another writer tells of three or four shepherds separating their flocks solely by their different calls (ibid.).

Isn’t it nice when someone knows your name or sends you a personal note? I realize that form letters are necessary and I try to read form prayer letters from missionaries. But if I get one that has a personal note at the bottom, I always read that first. We all appreciate it when someone recognizes us personally.

Jesus does that with His sheep. If you belong to Him, He knows you by name. Unlike me as a pastor with limited storage space in my computer (brain), Jesus never forgets a name. More than that, He not only knows your name, but He also knows everything about you, yet He still loves you and wants to fellowship with you! He is your caring shepherd.

B. Jesus the true shepherd provides leadership and protection for His sheep.

These blessings are implied in John 10:3b-4: [He] “leads them out. When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Jesus was probably alluding to Numbers 27:16-17, where Moses prayed, “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, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep which have no shepherd.” Jesus was leading His true sheep out of the barren fold of Judaism and into the rich pastures of abundant life that He provides.

Note, too, that Jesus doesn’t drive His sheep from behind. He leads them by going ahead of them. He makes sure that the way is safe from predators. He takes them where He knows there are rich pastures for them to feed on. He never takes them where He has not gone Himself, including the valley of the shadow of death. He has been tempted in all the ways we are tempted, yet He was without sin (Heb. 4:15). With such a caring, personal Savior who always has our best interests at heart, we can submit to and follow Him, trusting Him even in life’s most difficult trials.

3. The shepherd’s sheep follow Him because they know His voice, but they flee from strangers whom they don’t know.

John 10:4b-5: “… the sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

A. The shepherd’s sheep follow Him because they know His voice.

Jesus repeats that His sheep hear and know His voice in verses 3 & 4. He is not referring to hearing an audible voice, as when people say, “The Lord spoke to me.” Rather, we hear His voice through His written Word, properly interpreted and applied. Granted, sometimes the Holy Spirit impresses a particular verse on our hearts as we read the Bible or through a sermon or a book or a word from another brother or sister in Christ. But it should never be some screwy interpretation of a verse taken out of context. The Lord’s sheep know His voice through His Word because they graze often in it.

B. The shepherd’s sheep flee from strangers whom they don’t know.

One mark of the Lord’s genuine sheep is that they persevere in sound doctrine. In Matthew 24:24, speaking of the end times, Jesus predicts, “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.” There will be many false teachers, but it is not possible that they will deceive God’s elect. As Jesus said (John 6:39), “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” (See also, John 10:27-30.) But these promises do not absolve us of the responsibility to grow stronger in sound doctrine so that we will not be deceived. Dig deeper by studying God’s Word and by reading some solid theological books. Then when false teachers try to seduce you, you will flee.


But the bottom line is, it’s not how much you know, but who you know. The Pharisees knew far more theology than the man born blind, but they didn’t know the true shepherd. But the healed blind man now knew Jesus as his shepherd. Do you? Jesus prayed (John 17:3): “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”

Application Questions

  1. If Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets all testify to Jesus (Luke 24:27, 44), Christians should be reading and studying the Old Testament. How should a believer start doing that?
  2. Although warning about false teachers and refuting their teaching is a main job for pastors (Titus 1:9), many Christians don’t like this and few pastors do it. How can this be corrected?
  3. How can a believer know whether a thought or impression is truly from the Lord?
  4. How would your awareness of Jesus’ personal care for you affect how you deal with your current or future trials?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christology, Soteriology (Salvation)