Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Good Shepherd

So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10: 7-11, 14-15).

Jesus is speaking to “the Jews” at the end of chapter nine, after having restored sight to the man who had been born blind. We have already identified “the Jews” as being the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the teachers of the Law – those groups who had become the religious leaders by Jesus’ time. Jesus’ entire “figure of speech” (v.6) seems to be directed at them. On one level, this paroimia (or enigmatic saying) is simple to understand (The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version, 2009). The sheep are God’s people; the sheepfold represents the safety and rest of the Lord. The shepherd is the one who cares for and protects the sheep, but who are the “thieves and robbers”? In the context of the conversation it is evident that Jesus is referring, not simply to false Messiahs and those who would teach false doctrine and scatter the people of God as a wolf scatters a flock (Lenski, 1942). Jesus is referring to those who have legitimately put in charge of caring for the sheep, but have shirked their duties. Lenski writes:

“Some have thought that Jesus here refers to false Messiahs who had come before his time. But this is historically incorrect and also untrue to the figure. False Messiahs would be false doors to the fold not thieves and robbers who fight shy of ‘the door.’ When Jesus adds that these ‘are’ thieves and robbers he comes down to the present and includes the present Jewish leaders. All, past and present, ‘are’ self-seekers” (Lenski, 1942).

When we apply the Berean Test[1] to Jesus’ message to the Jews in John chapter 10, it seems to be the same message spoke hundreds of years before by God the Jews through the prophet Ezekiel:

…Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them…Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness (Ezekiel 34: 1-4, 11-12).

In calling himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus is calling himself Yahweh. The prophet Ezekiel wrote that God himself, because those who were supposed to shepherd Israel would neglect the responsibility given to them, would come among his sheep and be their shepherd himself. Jesus announces to the Jews here in John 10 that the long wait for their shepherd is over – he has arrived.

In addition to calling himself the Shepherd, Jesus also refers to himself as “the door of the sheep” (v. 7). This is significant because, by saying this, Jesus is telling everyone that, like the gate of the fold which controlled who had access to the safety of the pen and to the shepherd, Jesus is the means of access to God the Father. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus will explain to his disciples the concept that no one can come to the Father except through him;[2] here he teaches that truth with a figure of speech.

“Anyone who comes through the gate, that is, who believes in Jesus, will be saved. He or she will come and go and be nourished. The thieves and robbers come to steal, kill, and destroy, the effect of false teaching is disastrous. The path of the Pharisees falls off a rocky cliff. But Jesus came so that the sheep might have life and have it to the full” (Baumler, 1997).

The Jews gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father’s name speak for me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jew, “but for blasphemy because you, a mere man, make yourself God” (NIV John 10:24-33).

Here, as he did in an exchange with the Pharisees in chapter eight, Jesus tells them exactly who he is. He is “one” with the Father. Not merely one in will and work, but one in being and essence (The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version, 2009).[3] Additionally, the Greek word used by John in this passage is neuter – one thing, not one person. Jesus is telling us that he and the Father are one in essence, or nature, but they are not identical persons. As the Scripture says, the Jews understood exactly what Jesus was saying. They took these words to be blasphemy, and tried to carry out the law – the penalty for blasphemy was stoning – though without due process.[4]

Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel is amazing, in that it teaches so much in such a short space. Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd and, in so doing, gives us a glimpse of the intimate relationship he has with his followers, and the love that moved Jesus to die for them all. Sheep who do not listen to the voice of the shepherd are bound to wander away from the safety of the flock and be devoured by wolves. Like the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, the God-man’s love for his own moved him to endure the humiliating death on the cross to be the sacrifice for their sins (The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version, 2009).[5]

Jesus’ declaration that he and the Father “are one,” and that no one can snatch his sheep from his hand should give all believers hope, no matter what they face. “Believers can rest secure that they belong to Jesus Christ and will never perish; all of Jesus’ works affirm this truth” (The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version, 2009). Consequently, to reject Jesus as the Pharisees did, even in the face of the miracles Jesus did and the testimony of the Law and the Prophets, is to reject God himself and his gift of forgiveness and everlasting life.

Works Cited

Baumler, G. P. (1997). People's Bible Commentary: John. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Engelbrecht, E. A. (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Lenski, R. C. (1942). The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press.

End Notes

[1] Acts 17: 10-12
[2] John 14:6
[3] John 10:38
[4] Leviticus 24:16
[5] Php. 2:8