This paper has been written by me in the course of my theological studies at European Nazarene College (www.eunc.edu). You may use this text as a part of your work provided that you give credits to its author – Petar Neychev. If you have questions – please, leave a comment or contact me through the Contact Us page.
Often noted for being different and highly debated, the fourth Gospel of the New Testament, the Gospel of John presents to its reader an image and message of Christ, which is not simply different from those of the Synoptic Gospels, but also completes them. So it is with the parable of the Shepherd and His Flock, as the NIV Bible entitles it, found in John 10:1-21. This parable is only found in the Gospel of John, and although this paper will not discuss it at its entirety, I will make an attempt by exegeting the second part of the discourse – Jesus’ explanation of the parable, to make clearer its meaning for today’s readers. Before this, however, I ought to give some attention to the Gospel of John in general, as it will later aid the interpretation and understanding of the passage.
The fourth Gospel’s authorship is a widely discussed historical issue. However, the view which has been proposed and supported by both the text itself and the early church fathers, and namely, that the apostle John, the brother of James, son of Zebedee initially wrote the Gospel is what this paper will assume.(1) Concerning the original audience of the Gospel of John – as Kruse argues, the strong emphasis on Jesus’ messiahship and the original language of the text – Greek both suggest that the message was intended for a Greek speaking Jewish audience (Kruse 21). The purpose of the Gospel, however, is an aspect of the book, which strongly impacts the meaning of the passage discussed in this paper.
John 20:30,31 is the Gospel’s own testimony about its purpose. In other words, this is “a clear declaration of the author’s intention in writing the book (Tenney 27).” The three keywords from this passage, which Tenney also points out are signs, believing, and life. Concerning signs, the Gospel of John uses signs to reveal Jesus’ nature. In the discussed passage, none of the seven signs in the Gospel is present. However, the emphasis on believing and having a new life is tremendous in John 10:7-18, which finds itself as a part of the teaching section after the sign of healing the man born blind and before the last sign – raising Lazarus from the dead. Thus, the passage becomes a concluding part of Jesus’ revelation through signs and discourses before the passion narrative begins. In the immediate context, the passage is in fact an explanation from Jesus’ side to the parable he has told but was not understood in the beginning six verses of chapter ten.
Perhaps due to its nature, the selected passage of John does not pose any significant textual problems. The vast majority of translations agree on the interpretation of the message. However, again because of its nature, the passage incorporates a significant amount of cultural information, which from today’s standpoint needs to be read with increased attention. In the previous passage – the parable explained in the current one, Jesus uses an image from the the world of agriculture, which is also the everyday life of the majority of the people at the time. As a matter of fact, this historical reference is of significance to the today’s reader only because the imagery is not common today. The reference to the shepherd and the flock does not carry a significant meaning in and of itself.
What today’s reader needs to know concerning the agricultural image is that, as it is still done in villages in Bulgaria, for instance, there will be one shepherd for the sheep of more than one family. This is often a person hired especially for the job, and this does not mean that the person will be as responsible to the flock as the owners of the sheep for their own sheep. This is an important point, as Jesus uses it to contrast this “hired” hand with the care of the owner, who would lay their life for the sheep. Further on, it is necessary to note that the bound created between the flock and the shepherd is more significant than what one would expect. The sheep, as many other domestic animals, as well as pets, do establish trust in the shepherd. It is known that the sheep experience a great trauma in the first days with a new shepherd – a trauma of not recognizing the new voice, which is so strong that the sheep will run away instead of going out to gaze (Kruse 233).
A closer look at the passage calls for pointing out the very first phrase – “I tell you the truth.” This is a phrase which as O’Dail suggests Jesus uses “to indicate a new development in the discourse” (O’Dail 669). The development we witness as readers today makes the following words even more important – Jesus becomes even more straight-forward in his testimony, so that the people may believe.
The introductory phrase is followed by one of the seven “I am” statements in the Gospel, which would have echoed Exodus 3:14 – of God’s very first revelation to humanity in the form of a name, or something that suggests a relationship, a connection. The gate in this passage is the only entrance, as referred to by the agricultural parallel, but this entrance is more than something a person passes through. As the “I am” statement suggests, this is a “gate”, which is relational and deeply connected with the person – the only way in to the safe place, where the sheep or people are protected.
Verse 8 has brought about a discussion in the most critical readers – is Jesus disregarding completely those who were an entrance to God, a help for his revelation from the past – Moses, the prophets? If not, then whom is Jesus referring to? It appears to be in contradiction with the rest of Scripture to say that the first claim is true. Witherington is in agreement with this. He also goes on to say that “it must surely refer to all previous false shepherds, including those who had been leading before and now during Jesus’ day with whom Jesus was in a controversy at present” (Witherington 188). As a support one may also use Scripture’s own account – Jesus claims that his own did not listen to these false shepherds either. And just in the previous miracle the man born blind did not listen and believe the speculations of the Jewish authorities.
To increase the emphasis Jesus repeats in verse nine “I am the gate”. Just that this time the phrase is followed by an even clearer definition of what the discourse is all about. Some consider Jesus’ words here as posing a challenge in understanding the passage, because he shifts from describing himself as the good shepherd (verses 1 through 5) to describing himself even more as the only way to God. One way to approach this challenge is by pointing out some later Jewish practices where the shepherd himself would sleep at the entrance of the pen, and thus, Jesus being the good shepherd would also be the one sleeping at the entrance – being the entrance.(2) Others have attempted to connect this passage with some Old Testament references to doors being the entrance to God’s presence.(3) While these arguments might have some value, I would propose that the word “saved” from verse 9 – σωθησεται in Greek is related to περισσονor from verse 10, or “to the full,” as the NIV translates it. Both words carry a sense of completeness, being made complete, or complete through. Thus, while the adversary comes to steal, kill and destroy – ie. make incomplete, Jesus comes to give life – to bring completion.
This interpretation is of crucial importance for the implication of the passage by suggesting that it addresses both the current situation of humanity – living an incomplete life, and contrasts it with the possible life in Christ – the life of completeness, or humanity led towards a restored image of God. In addition to this, it is necessary to also point out the word “life” from verse 10. As it was said earlier, this is one of the three keywords which describe the purpose of the Gospel of John – so that the readers may believe and have life. Thus, Jesus the Shepherd comes to protect and to bring life, which is a complete life – nothing else is necessary, nothing more could be added.
Jesus continues his explanation in verses 11 through 13 to show by what means he brings life. For this he identifies once again with the good shepherd through another “I am” statement and contrasts the qualities of the one known to the sheep with the one who is a “hired hand”, a detached shepherd. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” echoes verse 11b. Just as the shepherd who is leading his own family sheep so does also Jesus have something to lose if the flock is scattered or a sheep – a person is snatched by a wolf. This is where the historical imagery becomes distant and impersonal to most of today’s readers, but what Jesus is saying is that he is one who cares for all people because they are his own. We are nobody else’s!
In verse 14 Jesus introduces one more aspect of the shepherd-sheep relationship – knowledge. It has been mentioned in the parable itself – verses 4 and 5 that the sheep will only listen to the shepherd they recognize, the voice they know. Jesus takes this metaphor and extends it in verse 15 to the intimate knowledge that is between him and the Father. This knowledge now applies also to those who are elsewhere in the fourth Gospel called Jesus’ “own” (Bruce 227). In other words, what Jesus is saying is that those who choose to follow him will benefit benefit this personal knowledge of God himself, which Adam’s sin has taken away. This is, a relationship restored, for there is no authentic relationship without intimate knowledge.
Verse 16 comes a bit abruptly in the story, introducing a thought which is not present neither in the parable, nor earlier in Jesus’ explanation. Keener makes quite an extensive discussion concerning this thought, trying to clarify who are the “other sheep.”(4) Considering his conclusions, as well as Kruse’s claim that “the allusion is to the Gentile people, those who are not part of Israel” (Kruse 237) I would suggest that whatever the small details in meaning be, Jesus is obviously talking about missions and what is to come after his resurrection through the preaching of his disciples empowered by the Holy Spirit. What might be stunning as a claim to today’s reader is that it is till Jesus who brings them in. The implications of this for the ministry of believers today are immense. We ought to recognize that in spite of all human efforts spent on a new believer, it is still God who transforms and makes them become one.
To the modern reader the statement of verse 17 may create a confusion – does the Father have a conditional love for His Son? Would the father have not loved Jesus should he have decided to not lay down his life? However, this is surely not the issue at stake for John in writing the Gospel. What verse 17 is trying to communicate is that Jesus lays his life out of obedience to the Father’s will (Kruse 237). Salvation could not have been available today as it is if Jesus would not have laid his life down. The end of the verse is even more powerful. I would like to emphasize Jesus certainty in being resurrected in addition to what commentators say is carried in the meaning of these words.(5) It is in these words that our assurance of resurrection should find itself. If Jesus could resurrect Lazarus, as well as himself, then what would be the barrier before resurrecting us?
The last verse we will look at from this passage is 18, and it continues to emphasize Jesus’ authority over life and death. It is the statement that Jesus lays his life of his own accord, that makes salvation a God-thing. It is in this claim that we see in full Jesus’ authority, which is instituted by the Father himself. It is in Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice that the commandment to love is made complete by example. In addition to all this, I have to point out that in the act of salvation Jesus does not act by himself. It is important to know that besides the Holy Spirit given to believers after the resurrection and ascention, and Jesus’ death and raising, the Father is also fully involved. Thus, it is the whole of the Triune God that is acting in order to bring new life and later restore the created order.
As a conclusion I would like to point out several theological truths that this passage supports. The first is that there is no other way of salvation apart from Jesus. Just as there is only one way for the sheep to enter the pen, so there is only one way to heaven. Secondly, life finds its completion solely in the union with God. In fact, it is the new life in Jesus which is complete. Through this one may understand that fullness of life describes a relationship. It is not an abstract term, but a very real necessity for all of mankind. Nothing can be satisfactory apart from the restored relationship with Christ. And lastly, it is only by God’s grace that we receive salvation and all that comes with it. None but God himself has the authority to take life and give life.
Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John – Introduction, Exposition and Notes. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983
Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John – A Commentary Vol. 1. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003
Kruse, Colin G. The Gospel According to John – An Introduction and Commentary. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003
O’Day, Gail. “John,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 9. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995.
Strong, James. Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries – Dictionaries of Hebrew and Greek Words. E-Sword, 1890
Tenney, Merrill C. John: The Gospel of Belief – An Analytic Study of the Text. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988
The Holy Bible in the following translations: NIV, NASB, Bulgarian 2002 by United Bible Societies, Textus Receptus Greek New Testament from Stephanus 1550 (e-Sword)
Witherington, III, Ben. John’s Wisdom – A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995