Jesus the Shepherd gives life in abundance (John 10)

The lectionary gospel readers for the Fourth Sunday of Easter take the three parts of John 10 in turn; being in Year A, we are reading the first ten verses. But this is a good example of where our modern chapter divisions (first created by Stephen Langton, the 13th-century Archbishop of Canterbury who helped to write the Magna Carta) hinder rather than help our reading, for two reasons.

First, John 10 actually straddles a fairly major division in the narrative. The events of chapter 6 are clearly situated near Bethsaida and around Lake Galilee—the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on the water, and the dispute about Jesus as the bread of life. But in John 7.10, Jesus heads off ‘secretly’ to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles in the early autumn, one of the three Pilgrim Festivals (with Passover and Pentecost), and the action of chapters 7, 8 and 9 until 10.21 is set around this time. (Note the mention, for example, of the ‘people of Jerusalem’ in John 7.25 and the ‘temple guards’ in John 7.45; this is a reason why we might interpret the language of ‘the Jews’ (Judaioi) here as either ‘Jewish leaders’ or ‘Judeans’.) But in John 10.22, we have now moved to The Feast of Dedication (Hannukah), around two months later, without any note of the time passing. The intense focus on Jerusalem is one of the things that makes sense if we believe that the author of the gospel is a Jerusalem disciple, rather than one of the Galilean Twelve.

Secondly, the chapter change from John 9.41 to 10.1 disrupts the continuity of the narrative, and even breaks up a single speech by Jesus to the Pharisees that oppose him. Chapter 10 begins with the distinctive expression of the Johannine Jesus: ‘Truly, truly I say to you…’ (Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν…). Since the Greek text here records the Aramaic or Hebrew term ‘Amen’, then we should really do so in English translations, as we do for other Aramaic terms like ‘Marana tha’, ‘Alleluia’ (in Revelation), and ‘Amen’ when it occurs in its usual place at the end of a prayer or praise to God. ‘Amen’ concludes numerous prayers in the OT, but only Jesus uses it to introduce his solemn statements. The single use (‘Amen I say to you…) occurs throughout Matthew and Mark, suggesting that this is a record of Jesus’ ipsissima verbathough Luke mostly omits the phrase in order to make his gospel more accessible to a non-Jewish readership (for example, compare Matt 8.10 with Luke 7.9). The Fourth gospel’s unique doubling of ‘Amen’, which comes 25 times, is usually repeated three or four times within a narrative unit, and almost always occurs in the middle of a section of discourse—and this is no exception.

Although we might casually infer that Jesus is opposed to the Pharisees as a group (‘I tell you Pharisees’, John 10.1 TNIV, supplying the word ‘Pharisees’ because of the context), the narrative of the healing of the man born blind in chapter 9 is connected tightly with the Good Shepherd discourse by the theme of division amongst the Pharisees in particular and the ‘Jew[ish leaders]’ in general. They are ‘divided’ in John 9.16, and again in John 10.19, and on both occasions in the same way—some saying he is opposed to God or possessed by a demon, but others arguing that he could neither do such healings or teach such things if he was a ‘sinner’. Difference and division is therefore central to the context of Jesus’ teaching here, and it is also emphasised in the content of what he says.

Part-way through Jesus’ discourse about the sheep/shepherd/sheepfold, the gospel narrator interjects to explain that this is a ‘figure of speech’, a paroimia. The term occurs only here and in John 16.25 and 29 in the gospels, and only once elsewhere in the NT in 2 Peter 2.22—where is has its usual Greek meaning of a proverb or saying. But both the terms parabole and paroimia translate the Hebrew term mashal in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, LXX), and we should not see this speech as very different from the parables in the Synoptics—which are other wise absent from the Fourth Gospel.

It was previously argued (by Joachim Jeremias in The Parables of Jesus) that parables had only one point, implying that anything more complex was a later addition by the early church or the author of the gospel. But that does not stand up to scrutiny in the light of Jesus’ own explanation, for example, of the parable of the sower in Mark 4. On the other hand, we should be wary of treating these as allegories, where each element of the story (such as the gatekeeper in this case) ‘stands’ for something, in a detailed one-to-one relationship. That approach is undermined by Jesus’ change of focus here, where at one moment he is the shepherd, and at another is the gate for the sheep—notwithstanding the fact that shepherds would at night lie across the entrance to a sheepfold to protect the flock. Jesus emphasis in verse 9 is that he lets people in, not that he keeps others out.

The ‘figure of speech’ here functions in the same way as the parables in the Synoptics, as Jesus explains by quoting Is 6.9–10 in Mark 4.10–12: the obscurity of Jesus’ teaching serves to differentiate between those who are spiritually open to receive his message, and those who fail to understand. In this context, the difference is metaphorically expressed as between those who see (including the man born blind) and those who remain blind to Jesus’ true identity, despite their claim to sight, that is, understanding.

The first part of the paroimia is simply descriptive of the practices of shepherd in Jesus’ day. There is often discussion here (and in relation to the shepherds at Christmas in Luke 2 as well as Luke 15) as to whether shepherds were social outcasts as the bottom rung of the ladder of respectability. But David Croteau has pointed out that all the negative references to shepherds either come from Greek sources or from one part of the Babylonian Talmud, which might have been influenced polemically against the gospel traditions in which shepherds are positive models. Within this narrative, and elsewhere in the NT, shepherds are depicted entirely positively—which is not surprising given the roots of the image in the OT as referring to God and to those who are faithful leaders under God of his people, especially in Ezekiel 34 and Ps 23.

First-century shepherds would indeed be able to name their sheep, who would respond to either a tune played on a flute by their shepherd, or the shepherd calling them by name. This was important, since it was common for several flocks and shepherds to share a sheepfold, which would indeed have a gatekeeper to ensure only those entitled could enter.

Jesus adds in the theme of division and conflict by contrasting the true shepherd of the sheep with those whose claim to the flock is illegitimate. Rather than coming in the correct way, he pictures them vaulting over the wall of the sheepfold, and causing havoc amongst the flock. The gospel’s Jewish readers are likely to hear in this echoes of what happened in the First Jewish War, which led to the destruction of the temple in AD 70; there was such division amongst the different factions that more Jews were killed by other Jews than were killed by the Romans. And the political rebellion against Roman rule led to the destruction of the people. Within the narrative, Jesus’ criticism of the Jewish leaders who oppose him is confirmed by the terminology: the High Priest’s courtyard in John 18.15 is referred to by the same term, aule, as the sheepfold, and Barabbas, chosen for release in preference to Jesus in John 18.40, is a ‘robber’. The leaders of the people literally choose a thief in place of the Good Shepherd.

In the second part of the paroimia, Jesus makes his identification with the shepherd and the door explicit, and this section includes, close together, two of the seven ‘I am…’ sayings of the Fourth Gospel. Felix Just notes how all these images are rooted in the OT, and primarily refer to God’s relationship with Israel:

  • Bread of Life / Bread from Heaven – see Exod 16; Num 11:6-9; Ps 78:24; Isa 55:1-3; Neh 9:15; 2 Mac 2:5-8
  • Light of the World – Exod 13:21-22; Isa 42:6-7; Ps 97:4
  • Good Shepherd – Ezek 34:1-41; Gen 48:15; 49:24; Ps 23:1-4; 80:1; 100:3-4; Micah 7:14
  • Resurrection / Life – Dan 12:2; Ps 56:13; 2 Mac 7:1-38
  • Way – Exod 33:13; Ps 25:4; 27:11; 86:11; 119:59; Isa 40:3; 62:10
  • Truth – 1 Kings 17:4; Ps 25:5; 43:3; 86:11; 119:160; Isa 45:19
  • Vine / Vineyard – Isa 5:1-7; Ps 80:9-17; Jer 2:21; Ezek 17:5-10

So Jesus’ claims here contribute to the high Christology of this gospel; what God was to Israel, Jesus now is to those who follow him.

The description of the shepherd now takes on heightened significance. As the sheep, who are trusting, and unable to find their way on their own, listen to the voice of the shepherd, so Jesus’ voice becomes the guide for those who follow him. This literally becomes the case for Mary Magdalene in the tomb garden in John 20; it is when she hears Jesus call her by name that she recognises him. But elsewhere in this gospel, the voice of Jesus is closely identified with the voice of God; just as Jesus only does what he sees his Father doing (John 5.19) so he only speaks what the Father is speaking (John 12.49), so that to hear Jesus is to hear the words of God (John 14.31).

And to hear Jesus is to know him, and that is the source of true life (John 17.3). Here is the most striking contrast between Jesus as the good shepherd, and the ‘thieves and robbers’ who claim illegitimate authority. Where they bring death, he brings life—in fact, he offers an exchange, where he gives up his own life, and experiences death, in order that the sheep might have life ‘in all its fulness’. This, then, is not a mantra for general prosperity in society, detached from the question of discipleship (as it appears to have been used recently in the Church of England statement about goals in education), but an expression of discipleship—of the life that comes from Jesus’ atoning death, that brings light and life to those who receive him. This completes the connection between life and sight that is created by the connection with the healing of the man born blind; right at the start of this gospel, the Word brings life which is the ‘light of all humanity’ (John 1.4) but which is only experienced when he is ‘received’ (John 1.12).

These sayings do not, therefore, offer a cosy image of comfort to those already part of the community of faith, nor to the general reader. They are generated in the heat of the conflict and division created by both Jesus’ teaching and his actions. They sit within the paradox of grace and judgement within this gospel as a whole; although Jesus came to save the world and not judge it (John 3.17), yet judgement comes when people make a decision about how to respond to Jesus (John 3.18). Jesus’ claim to be the true Shepherd of God’s people means we need to make a response as to whether we will follow him.

But to those who do receive them, these words offer hope and life. Safety is no longer to be found in a place, in the sheepfold of the land of Israel or the social space of conformity to the law, but in a person—in the knowledge of Jesus and obedience to the call of his voice, as he calls us by name. Hence Paul’s language of the people of God being ‘in Christ’ where the OT talks about being ‘in the land’. And the sheep belong to the shepherd, they are his own, because they have been ‘bought with the price’ (1 Cor 6.20) of the life of the Good Shepherd laid down for us.

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10 thoughts on “Jesus the Shepherd gives life in abundance (John 10)”

  1. Also Ian can you shed light on why in the lectionary at this point we break form accounts of resurrection appearances to have this focus on Jesus as the good Shepherd?

    • I think because of the teaching by Jesus that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, which he has just done at Easter. Unfortunately that is the focus of next year’s reading!

  2. As something of an aside, if you can access BBC iPlayer, “The Great Mountain Sheep Gather” is available still for 14 days. It is true “slow TV”, but a beautiful programme. I mention it partly because as they are bringing the sheep down (from around Scarfell Pike), you see one of the lambs being carried.

  3. There was such division amongst the different factions that more Jews were killed by other Jews than were killed by the Roman.
    That’s interesting. Could you reference this please – it would be good to find out more.

    Barabbas is described as a robber, but Luke enlarges by explaining that he led a rebellion – which is what many Jews hoped Jesus would do. In John 10:10 the reference is not to literal robbers, as you acknowledge. The symmetry looked for therefore seems to be absent, and indeed the nouns in John 10:10 and John 18:40 are not the same.

    What does Amen mean, actually? At the end of a prayer, it is difficult to translate ‘Truly’. Something more like ‘indeed’, ‘certainly’?

    What God was to Israel, Jesus now is to those who follow him. I am not convinced that in the OT passages the references are consistently to God. E.g. vine/vineyard in the OT seems to refer to Israel. And is truth mentioned in I Ki 17:4?

    • Dear Steven, although I don’t know the reference for the internecine violence in this case, it is a known phenomenon for old private scores to be settled under the cover of violent attack from outside. For example in French history, although a majority of those killed in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre were Protestants, there were also a significant number of Catholics who killed each other. Likewise both Collaborators and La Resistance were not above using enemy cover to settle their own differences, especially in the wave of lynchings after the war. Messy business.

  4. I enjoyed this.

    Been mulling over along with some other stuff. As recommended I read the whole of John 9 and 10 to see the picture frame. Well, fuller picture.

    This isn’t theology, its my reaction of course, but I was left with such and ache reading it. An groan for the Pharisees not at them. It’s probably anthropomorphism to see them like a tree full of sparrows, (sadly now a rarer sight) that appear to be like siblings constantly bickering, almost a sign of affection like puppies doing rough and tumble with a safe other before having to defend themselves for real in the big world but enough to drive parents mad. But here it’s not children but adults who should have grown out of it, who should have bigger battles to fight, not each for himself but one for all, all for one.

    I’m afraid it’s the feeling I get about us Evangelicals. We have to get things right, decide if they’re sound, keep on working it out. That’s our gift. I don’t even have a problem with lots of denominations. We’re Protestants, we need to defend our right to think, to think it through and to act on what we find. But the flip side is the bickering and judging. Biting each other. Not seeing wood for trees.

    I’m sure no Pharisee was happy about the suggestion that some of them were robbers or even worse, hired hands. I’m sure no self respecting Evangelical would want to think of ourselves like that either. We’re all Elijah aren’t we, the one who stayed faithful when everyone else has drifted off into idols and liberalism.

    What really gutted me was, well 2 things. One is

    “5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger’s voice.’”

    Since I’ve been searching for fellowship via the internet (about 15 years) not only I’ve found huge huge amounts of the bickering of course, enough to totally put me off all so called Christian debate for a long while, but an astonishing number of disaffected Christians, many of whom have kept their faith but who are actively running from churches because of our judgemental, controlling abusive behaviour. Not running away from yokes and burdens, rather looking for more reasonable ones. There was that research in New Zealand and then Steve Ainsworth’s amazing offering in Scotland that shows it’s largely not God who’s putting people off.

    Secondly there’s the verses just before our passage.

    40-41 “Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, ‘What? Are we blind too?’ Jesus said, ‘If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

    We claim we can see but we bicker on and on. And while we argue about how to reach the lost the lost get loster and we argue about worship when we should leap to worship even if all we get to help us is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

  5. I was also pondering through following your comment about shepherds not being social outcasts. I was wondering if both could be true.

    By the nature of their work and distance from civilisation in dryer regions where extensive travel may be necessary, lack of amenities, lack of mixed company maybe hands on shepherds could be uncouth “hill-billies” toughened by a hard life.

    In comparison the Jewish ancestors were the owners of huge flocks that required employees to mind the animals, (though obviously they’d still know about sheep) – as in Abraham and Lot’s men that ended up in arguments. The Jewish identity revolved around this type of being shepherds of course, a) the caste system of being the right blood who were pastoralists first arable second and not part of the “rabble” that came with them who were put to utilities work of drawing water and hewing firewood and b) which then led on to land ownership being strictly limited by OT law with even land sold to non-members of the clans having to be returned at the Jubilee thus favouring the shepherds with a shepherd God still further.

    As I think about it is there even a distinction made about key patriarchs who have the dynastic herders aristocracy blood but also have more extensive hands-on sheep experience – like Jacob, David who was out with the sheep (but funnily enough all his older brothers were to hand to meet the distinguished visitor), Moses?

    In which case ‘good’ shepherd is a very alive distinction and maybe Jesus, in bringing them back to the nitty-gritty of good sheep care practices is another indirect way (let alone all the direct ways he uses too) of casting aspersions on their governing of the people in a way that just sees flocks and folks as mere agricultural and social capital.


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