The Good Shepherd and His Sheep
1 "Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice." 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, "Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
There was at least a dozen kids upstairs playing, running, shouting, and being loud in general. Downstairs there was a room full of parents that were laughing and having a good time. Every know and then, though, a distinct cry could be heard above the noise upstairs and the conversation downstairs. What amazed one young single person who was downstairs with the collection of parents was that every time a cry or scream was heard, one of the parents seemed to know instantly not only that that was their child, but that they could also tell immediately what the purpose of the cry was, whether it was anger, injury, or the desire to tattle on someone else. Generally the parent would then call out "come here" without actually going up the stairs and without fail, the upset child would immediately know that that was the voice of their parent, even above all of the noise and commotion. No matter how noisy or chaotic, parents know the sound of their child’s voice and children know the comforting sound of their parents voice.
Shepherds will tell you that sheep have the same ability. They know their shepherd’s voice. It is not uncommon to have groups of different sheep collected in one spot only to have the shepherd of some of those sheep call for those that belong to him. Rather than all of the sheep coming to him, however, only the sheep who know the voice calling as the voice of their shepherd will come. This is the concept that would have been quite familiar to those that Jesus was speaking to.
The Old Testament is full of sheep and shepherd imagery which refer to God or His Messiah as Israel’s true shepherd (Gen. 48:15; 49:24; Ps. 23:1; 28:9; 74:1; 77:20; 78:52; 79:13; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 34:11-31). Much of this likely stems from the famous Psalm 23 which describes God as the perfect shepherd and protector of His people. The Psalmist writes, "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake" (Ps. 23). The prophet Jeremiah picked up on this motif and charged Israel’s leaders with being poor shepherds: ""Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!" declares the LORD" (Jer. 23:1). He goes on to promise that the Lord Himself will return to "gather the remnant" of his "flock" (Jer. 23:3) and "will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid" (Jer. 23:4). He goes on to declare the word of the Lord which decrees that the days are coming (presumably this is how the Lord will gather the remnant of His flock) when He "will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely" (Jer. 23:5). The prophet Ezekiel, after sharply criticizing the leaders of Israel as evil shepherds for scattering the flock and only feeding and worrying about themselves, says that "I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them" (Ezek. 34:10), and that he Himself will "search for my sheep and look after them" (Ezek. 34:11).
This passage is a continuation of the discussion concerning the healing of the blind man from chapter 9, which is demonstrated by Jesus’ "Very truly I tell you," which, in John’s Gospel, always connects the present discourse as an explanation on the previous scene rather than an indicator of a new discussion. The issue at hand here, in essence, is who represents God, who is the true leader of God’s people, and who can truly shepherd others towards God? Is Jesus the true son of God who will one day be vindicated by the Father to sit at His right hand? Jesus uses imagery to make his point that is beautiful, familiar to his original audience, biting, and challenging all at the same time.
Jesus points out that there are two ways to enter the sheep pen, the gate or some other way. The one who enters through the gate shows that he is the true shepherd of the sheep, while those who try to enter any other way are shown to be a thief and a robber. When the real shepherd comes in, his true sheep come at the mere expression of his voice. They might not even see the shepherd, but they know through faith and experience that this is their shepherd. The shepherd is the only one that has the right to lead the sheep anywhere. Shepherds in Western countries often herd sheep with the use of dogs, but shepherds in this part of the world led sheep solely through the sound of their voice. He would go on ahead, calling the sheep and they would follow. Sheep trained in such a way simply would not follow the voice of someone else. Jesus’ point here is clear, although the Pharisees don’t understand what he was telling them. In the immediate situation, Jesus is explaining that this blind man is prepared to follow Jesus because he is one of his sheep. The Pharisees, though, are thieves and robbers. They are trying to lead the sheep but they have not entered through the gate. That’s why the true sheep are walking away from their leadership and following Jesus. They know his voice that speaks the word, the logos, of truth.
Because of their lack of discerning what Jesus was saying, we might expect that Jesus would explain the same concept in another way but by this time, we should know better than to think that Jesus will do what is expected. He doesn’t re-explain the concept that he is the true shepherd that is leading out his sheep that hear his voice and who reject the callings of the thieves who have climbed into the sheep pen through nefarious means. Jesus shows that there are two ways of viewing him. He is not only the shepherd, he is himself, the gate into the sheep pen. The gate that the thieves have so pointedly stayed away from is nothing other than his very self.
But how can that make any sense? How can Jesus be both the shepherd and the gate? John has already hinted at this in the opening prologue and will continue to show how this can be throughout his Gospel. "In him was life, and that life was the light of men," John has already told us (1:4). God would save the world "through him" (3:17), because the Father granted that he would have "life in himself" (5:17). He is "the gate" (10:9) and "the life" (11:25; 14:6). Only those who would believe in the life of the Son and enter into that life will have life themselves (11:26), life in his name (20:31). The fact that Jesus made clear was that he is the only true gate (the third of John’s "I am" saying from Jesus’ lips in his Gospel) to enter into the sheep pen of God’s people.
Jesus is the shepherd who gently calls and leads his sheep to the kind of complete life and salvation that the prophets had written of so long ago. This explains how the prophets could speak of both God Himself coming to shepherd His people (Ezek. 34:11) and the kingly Messiah being the one to accomplish that (Jer. 23:3-6). The shepherd would be God and he would be the Messiah. But he would also be the gate. God didn’t send someone else to work out a reconciliation between Himself and His creation that was marred in sin. Jesus was the true Son of God and all those who wanted life would have to lay down the claims to their life and enter into the life of the Messiah. Jesus was quite literally the gate to life. Those who enter through him will be saved and those who do not enter through his life will not be saved.
The true shepherd will lay down his life (v. 11) so that the sheep may find pasture and have the life of the age to come. That is, in fact, the only way that such a thing could happen. Jesus’ life is the only life that will enter into the age to come and be resurrected. Those who remain in their own life will never see such things. In contrast to the true shepherd who is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), all who have come before him are thieves and robbers that come only to steal and kill and destroy. They have gone into the sheep pen to steal the sheep, to kill them for food that would benefit themselves, and to destroy the sheep. The Pharisees (this is the immediate context but surely Jesus intended to include all of the leadership of Israel at the time) were the shepherds that Ezekiel spoke of who did not "strengthen the weak, heal the sick, or [bind] the injured" (Ezek. 34:4). They "cared for themselves rather than for [God’s] flock" (Ezek. 34:8). These false shepherds were worried about nothing except for their own welfare, despite the veneer of godliness. The true shepherd, however, would lay down his own life solely so that the sheep may have the life of the age to come which is not just the ability to live eternally after death but also includes the full life of the Christ that is available now to all those who believe and enter into his life.
Jesus said that he came so that his sheep might have life to the full. Do you view your life in Christ as something that could be described in such positive terms? Have you been living the life of Christ by holding to his teaching and experiencing the freedom from sin that comes in that kind of obedience (8:31-32)? If you see your life in Christ as something burdensome then there is something wrong in the way you have been viewing or embracing that life. For starters go back and see if you have really been holding to Jesus’ teachings and being obedient to his word. Have you really died to yourself and fully entered into his life with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength?