To commemorate Friday of Holy Week (Good Friday), I will be exploring the “Good Shepherd” discourse of John 10:1-21, leading up to the climactic verses 17-18 which relate specifically to the Passion of Christ.
There are two main patterns for the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John: (1) partial-dialogue and (2) continuous exposition. The previously-discussed discourses in chapters 3, 7-8 and 12 follow the first pattern, where the people hearing Jesus’ words react and respond with a question that reflects some level of misunderstanding, prompting Jesus to respond in turn. John 10:1-21 follows the second pattern, which can be compared in some ways to the longer parables in the Synoptic Gospels; the Vine discourse of John 15 is another example.
Jesus begins with a compact illustration or “parable”—the word used by the Gospel writer here is paroimi/a (paroimía “along the path”, i.e. “by way of…”) rather than parabolh/ (parabol¢¡ “[something] cast/thrown alongside”, i.e. “comparison”). Paroimi/a could be rendered “metaphor” or “proverb”, presumably comparable to the Hebrew word lv*m* (m¹š¹l); it is rare in the New Testament, occurring elsewhere only in Jn 16:25, 29 and 2 Pet 2:22. The illustration consists of verses 1-5, with two main figures: (a) the door (qu/ra) to the sheep-pen (the au)lh/ or “open space” for the sheep, presumably surrounded by a wall), and (b) the shepherd (poimh/n, the “keeper/guardian” or “herder” of the sheep). These two figures are brought together in vv. 1-2 by way of two theologically significant verbs: (a) a)nabai/nw (anabaínœ, “step up”), used in v. 1 for the thieves or “false” shepherds who climb up into the sheep-pen; and (b) ei)se/rxomai (eisérchomai, “come/go into”) in v. 2 for the “true” shepherd who enters through the door. There are two main themes as well within the illustration:
(a) The “true” or ideal shepherd contrasted with the “false” or wicked shepherd (emphasized in vv. 1-2)
(b) The sheep follow the (true) shepherd, who calls them by name—they know his voice (vv. 3-5)
It is curious that Jesus identifies himself with both the door and the shepherd (cf. the exposition in vv. 7-18). It is clear that some early scribes had difficulty understanding this, for a number of textual witnesses (including the early MS Ë75) read poimh/n (“shepherd”) instead of qu/ra (“door”) in verse 7. I tend to interpret the door and the sheep-pen according to Jesus’ (i.e. the Son’s) relationship to (and identity with) the Father—going out and in of the door is illustrative of Jesus coming from and returning to the Father. As such, according to the theology in John, since Jesus is the way to the Father for believers (Jn 14:6), he is the door for them as well. From another aspect, the sheep-pen also reflects the unity of believers in/with God and Christ (cf. especially Jn 17:20-23ff).
In the exposition of the illustration which comes next (vv. 7-18), Jesus discusses both figures (door and shepherd): verses 7-10 deal with the door, and verses 11-18 with the shepherd. Each section follows a common pattern:
- “I Am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) statement of Jesus—v. 7 / 11
- Contrast of “true” vs. “false” shepherd, emphasizing that only the true/ideal Shepherd cares for the sheep—v. 8 / 12-13
- “I Am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) statement of Jesus (repeated)—v. 9a / 14a
- Emphasis on the shepherd leading the sheep, and the sheep following—v. 9b / 14b-16
- Statement of salvific purpose and action of the Shepherd—v. 19 / 17-18
- “I Am” (e)gw/ ei)mi) statement of Jesus—v. 7 / 11
Comment should be made on the expression o( poimh\n o( kalo/$, usually translated “the good shepherd”, though a more literal rendering would be “the beautiful keeper/herder”. Here the adjective kalo/$ probably should be understood in the sense of “fine, noble”; it might, however, also have the connotation of “perfect” or “ideal”, especially in light of the contrast with the “false” shepherds (thieves/bandits and hirelings). In a society such as ancient Israel where pastoralism (herding) was a major part of the economy, the image of the herdsman would have been clear and powerful, much more so than for people in modern Western countries. In the ancient Near East, the shepherd was a common symbol for the ruler (as guardian) of the people, sheep being especially vulnerable and in need of protection. It appears frequently in the Old Testament (2 Sam 5:2; 7:7; [Eccl 12:11]; Isa 44:28; Jer 49:19; 50:44), often used of God as Shepherd (Gen 49:24; Ps 23:1ff; 28:9; 80:1; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 37:24; Amos 3:12; Mic 7:14). Moses and David are examples of ‘ideal’ rulers who had served as shepherds (cf. the specific association with David in Ps 78:70-72), and on a number of occasions the people Israel are depicted as sheep lost without a shepherd (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Jer 50:6; Zech 10:2-3; 13:7; cf. also Mk 6:34; 14:27 par). In the Prophets, the theme of judgment against the (religious) leaders as false (corrupt/wicked/failing) shepherds (Isa 56:11; Jer 2:8; 10:21; 12:10; 25:34-36; 50:6; Zech 10:2-3; 13:7) appears often, occasionally contrasted with the promise of restoration of true/faithful shepherds to lead Israel (Jer 3:15; 23:1-4; Ezek 37:24; Mic 5:4-6). The two Old Testament passages where this theme is most fully expounded are Ezekiel 34 and Zech 11; the last of these is thoroughly a message of judgment (v. 17 is close to 13:7, which Jesus quotes in Mk 14:27 par), whereas Ezek 34 is closer to the thought of the discourse here in Jn 10. Jesus as “Chief Shepherd” appears elsewhere in the New Testament (Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4), and Christian leaders are to follow his example as shepherd of a flock (cf. Jn 21:13-17; 1 Pet 5:2, etc). Paradoxially, in the Gospel of John, as well as elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus is both the Lamb (Jn 1:29, 36, et al.) and Shepherd—an association made explicit in Revelation 7:17.
Special attention should be given to principal theme of the “Good Shepherd” saying and exposition here in Jn 10:11-18:
o( poimh\n o( kalo\$ th\n yuxh\n au)tou= ti/qhsin u(pe\r tw=n proba/twn
“The beautiful keeper/herder sets (down) his soul [i.e. lays down his life] over the sheep” (v. 11b)
This can be understood concretely—the shepherd lays his body over the sheep to protect them—or figuratively—the shepherd gives up (i.e. risks) his life for the sake of protecting the flock. Clearly, in the context of Jesus’ teaching here, the image prefigures his upcoming death; note the use of similar language in the institution of the Lord’s Supper (“this is my blood of the testament/covenant th[at] is poured out over many”, Mark 14:24 and cf. par.). In the Old Testament shepherd imagery, this theme of risking one’s life is not especially emphasized, but only implied within the idea of protection and rescue of the flock (see also the Shepherd parable in Lk 15:3-7; Matt 18:12-14). It is a certain characteristic of the true/ideal/faithful shepherd as opposed to the mere hireling who does not really care for the sheep (vv. 12-13). But there is even more is involved: the idea of setting/laying down one’s life; note again the structure of this section:
- “I Am” saying (“I Am the Good Shepherd”), v. 11a
- Theme: the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, v. 11b
- Contrast between true shepherd and false shepherd (hireling), vv. 12-13
- “I Am” saying repeated (“I Am the Good Shepherd”), v. 14a
- Theme: “I know the (sheep that are) mine and the (sheep that are) mine know me”, v. 14b
- Emphasis on the shepherd leading (a&gw) the sheep, and the sheep following (“hearing”, a)kou/w)—”knowing” explained in terms of hearing, v. 15-16
- “I Am” saying (“I Am the Good Shepherd”), v. 11a
There are several important (Johannine) theological motifs embedded in the brief exposition of vv. 15-16:
- The knowing between sheep (believers) and shepherd (Jesus/Son) is reciprocal
- The relation between believers and Son parallels that of Son to the Father (ultimately Jesus leads them to the Father)
- This knowing is salvific—it is intimately connected with the sacrifice of the shepherd laying down his life
- This knowing involves “hearing” the “voice” of the Son (who only speaks what he has heard from the Father)
- This hearing/knowing/leading involves the unity of all believers (v. 16, with the mission to the Gentiles implied)
The climax of the passage is the statement of salvific purpose and action (vv. 17-18, parallel to that in verse 10) for the Shepherd:
Dia\ tou=to/ me o( path\r a)gapa=| o%ti e)gw\ ti/qhmi th\n yuxh/n mou, i%na pa/lin la/bw au)th/n. ou)dei\$ ai&rei au)th\n a)p’ e)mou=, a)ll’ e)gw\ ti/qhmi au)th\n a)p’ e)mautou=. e)cousi/an e&xw qei=nai au)th/n, kai\ e)cousi/an e&xw pa/lin labei=n au)th/n: tau/thn th\n e)ntolh\n e&labon para\ tou= patro/$ mou
“Through [i.e. because of] this the Father loves me, (in) that I set (down) my soul (s0) that I receive it again. No one carries it (away) from me, but (rather) I set it (down) from myself. I have authority to set it (down) and I have authority to receive it again—this (charge) laid upon (me) [i.e. this command] I received (from) alongside my Father”
Here we have a powerful dualistic expression (setting-down/taking-up) of the two aspects of the Shepherd’s saving sacrifice—setting down life (i.e. death), and taking it up again (i.e. resurrection). There is some ambiguity in the verb lamba/nw, which can be understood either in the sense of “receive” or “take”; for consistency’s sake in the translation above, I rendered all three instances (indicated with italics) as “receive”, but in the first two instances “take” might be more appropriate. Even though Jesus is normally thought of as raised up from the dead by the Father (and not by himself), in the Gospel of John, we have the clear idea that Jesus receives life “in himself” from the (living) Father (see esp. Jn 6:57), and so has the power both to be—and to confer—life (Jn 6:57b; 10:10b; 11:25).
The setting down of Jesus’ life certainly covers the entire Passion, but we can see it vividly expressed especially at the moment of death, where, in John’s account, upon uttering his final word (tete/lestai, “it is completed”), we read:
kai\ kli/na$ th\n kefalh\n pare/dwken to\ pneu=ma
…and bending (down) the head, he gave along [i.e. gave up] the spirit [lit. breath]
For the taking/receiving his life back again, we must wait for Easter Sunday.