April 3 (2): John 10:1-18

John 10:1-18ff

Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is one of the most beloved themes from the Gospels—however, the popular image of Jesus carrying the sheep really stems from the parable in Luke 15:3-7 (parallel in Matthew 18:12-14), of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to rescue the one “lost” sheep that had strayed: a beautiful image of care and concern for the sinner, the poor, the outcast. The parable in John (10:1-5, expounded in verses 7-18, 27-29) is rather different: the “good” (literally, “beautiful”, kalo/$) shepherd is one who guides and protects the entire flock (or herd, poi/mnh). Actually, Jesus describes himself as both the shepherd and the sheepgate (“door”, qu/ra) in the parable. This seems to have caused some confusion for early scribes: Ë75, along with Coptic (Sahidic, Akhmimc, Fayyumic) versions, read “shepherd” (o( poimh/n) instead of “door” (h( qu/ra) in verse 7. The “Good Shepherd” passage can be broken down as follows:

    1. The parable, 10:1-6
    2. Jesus as the door (gate) to the sheepfold, 10:7-10
    3. Jesus as the shepherd, 10:11-13
    4. The unity and preservation of the flock, 10:14-18
    5. A reprise of the shepherd theme, 10:25-30

Here I will look briefly at aspects of the last two sections, which are closely related and serve as a climactic revelatory moment for the parable (and exposition) of vv. 1-13. I find several primary themes, all of which are, in various ways, developed in subsequent chapters of the Gospel:

A. Mutual knowledge between Shepherd and Flock

In verse 14, right after the key declaration that he is (“I am”, e)gw/ ei)mi) the “beautiful shepherd” (o( poimh\n o( kalo/$), Jesus states that ginw/skw ta\ e)ma\ kai\ ginw/skousi/ me ta\ e)ma\, “I know the (things/ones that are) mine and the (thing/ones that are) mine know me”. The motif of knowing and knowledge (gnw=si$) is prominent throughout the Gospel of John (see especially the great discourses in chapters 8, 13, 14, and 17). Clearly this is not simply a matter of intellectual or factual knowledge, but of an intuitive recognition or “trust” (pi/sti$) (based on one’s true identity as a believer)—see Jesus’ response to the people questioning him in verse 26: u(mei=$ ou) pisteu/ete, o%ti ou)k e)ste\ e)k tw=n proba/twn tw=n e)mw=n, “you do not trust [i.e. believe], because you are not out of [i.e. from or belonging to] my sheep”. There something of a “gnostic” quality to this: it not so much a matter of conversion or learning something new, but of recognition, of realizing who (and whose) you (already) are. It would be precarious to read a full-fledged Augustinian-Reformed doctrine of predestination into passages such as this, but the basic concept is, I think, appropriate. Certainly the shepherd’s knowledge of the sheep is mentioned first, and takes priority. While the structure of the motif in verse 14 stresses mutual knowledge, it is not out of place to consider that our knowledge of Christ is based on his (pre-existing) knowledge of us (see John 15:16; 1 John 4:19, etc). This recognition of the shepherd leads to the sheep following him (not the other way around).

B. The Voice of the Shepherd

What the sheep follow is the voice of the shepherd (verse 16, 27; see also in the parable v. 3-5). The parallel motif of voice/hearing also occurs throughout the Gospel. The voice (fwnh/), of course is the audible expression of speech (i.e., lo/go$ “word, saying, account”)—Christ as the lo/go$ also gives account or “speaks” (le/gw). It is important to examine: (1) the source and nature of the voice in the Gospel, and (2) how the voice manifests itself in the context of the Gospel.

(1) First, the “word” (lo/go$) was (h@n) in the beginning (e)n a)rxh=|) with [lit. toward, pro$] God, and was God (qeo$) (John 1:1ff). Second, throughout the Gospel, Jesus emphasizes over and over that he (the Son) only does what he hears (John 5:30; 12:49-50; also 16:13 [of the Spirit], etc) and sees (5:19-20, etc) the Father saying and doing (the [incarnate] inter-relationship between Father and Son). And third, throughout the Gospel, Jesus’ words (voice) is identified with the voice of God—i.e., they speak with a common voice. This is especially so in relation to the idea of resurrection (5:19-29), where it is stated that all who are in the tombs “will hear his voice” (a)kou/sousin th=$ fwnh=$ au)tou=) and “will travel [i.e. come] out” (e)kporeu/sontai) (v. 28-29, cf. also v. 25 “the ones hearing [his voice] will live”).

(2) The message of 5:25, 28-29 will be acted out dramatically in the scene of the raising of Lazarus (11:1-44, esp. v. 43). Soon after, when Jesus is in Jerusalem, in response to his prayer (Pa/ter, do/caso/n sou to\ o&noma, “Father, glorify your name”, 12:28), there was “a voice out of heaven” (fwnh/ e)k tou= ou)ranou=) like “thunder” (bronth/)—a clear echo of the Theophany on Mt Sinai (Exodus 19:19; 20:18: in Ancient Near Eastern thinking thunder was generally understood as the “voice” of God). If, in these two scenes there is a visible, audible manifestation of the power of the Divine Voice, in chapters 13-17 the Voice is manifest at the spiritual level in Jesus’ discourses (presented as his parting words) to his disciples. Indeed, the coming Spirit (16:13-15) will, like Jesus himself [as his abiding presence in believers], speak whatever he hears (from the Father), and will glorify Christ (just like the Divine Voice of 12:28), receiving (lh/yetai) what is out of [i.e. from, belonging to] the Son, and will “declare” (a)paggelei= lit. “give [forth] a message”) it to the believer.  In the passion and resurrection narratives too there is a subtle dramatization of Jesus’ voice; note especially the words to Pilate: “into this [i.e. for this] I have come into the world, that I should witness [to] the truth; every one that is out of [e)k, “of, from, belonging to”] the truth hears my voice [a)kou/ei mou th=$ fwnh=$] (18:37). Note again that it is not hearing the voice that leads one to the truth, but one hears the voice because he/she already belongs to the truth. Interestingly, the crowd could not understand the Divine Voice (12:28-29).

C. The Authority of the Shepherd

The inter-relation and mutual identity of Father and Son has already been mentioned (cf. 10:15, “as the Father knows me and I know the Father”). But what is also specified in the Good Shepherd passage is the “authority” (e)cousi/a) Christ has (v. 18), specifically the authority to “set (down)” (aorist infinitive of ti/qhmi) and to “take/receive” (aor. inf. of lamba/nw) again his soul (or “life”, yuxh/). The word e)cousi/a (from e&cestin/e&ceimi) defies a strict literal translation in English, but it would be something like “from being” in the sense of something which “can be (done)”—i.e., power, ability, but also that which is permitted, lawful, etc. By extension, e)cousi/a often refers to the power or ability (to do something) granted by another (i..e, by one more powerful, king, ruler, etc). In this regard, orthodox believers are a bit uncomfortable speaking of authority being “given” to Christ by one “more powerful” (the Father); and, while it is not necessary to read a strict subordinationism here, Jesus specifically states that the authority (with the task of setting down and taking up his life) is a “commandment” or “charge” place on him (e)ntolh/) which he received from the Father (10:18). This charge is, literally, for the completion (te/lo$) of a mission, and to fulfill God’s purpose—for the suffering and death (the setting [down]) and resurrection and glorification (the taking [up] again) which was soon to come. This image of the shepherd who th\n yuxh\n au)tou= ti/qhsin u(pe\r tw=n proba/twn (“sets [down] his soul over [i.e. on behalf of] the sheep”) (10:11) is most beautiful indeed. One must also point out that the authority is not, in fact, merely “subordinate”, but equal to the Father—consider the powerful statement in verse 28: “and I give them life (of the) Age [i.e. eternal life], and no they shall not perish [or, be destroyed] into the Age, and someone shall not [i.e. no one shall] snatch them out of my hand!” This authority (indeed the sheep themselves, the believers) was given by the Father and no one “has power to snatch (them) out of the Father’s hand” (v. 29), and the statement culminates with Jesus’ famous declaration: e)gw\ kai\ o( path\r e%n e)smen (“I and the Father are one”, v. 30).

D. The Unity of the Flock

Perhaps most extraordinary in this passage is the effect both of the shepherd’s voice and of his laying down his life: that there will come to be (genh/sonta) “a single herd [i.e. flock], (and) one herdsman [i.e. shepherd]” (mi/a poi/mnh ei($ poi/mhn). This last phrase is quite remarkable; it is necessary to examine each part separately and then both combined:

(1) mi/a poi/mnh (“one herd” or “one flock”). This has two aspects: (a) the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers, clearly indicated by the “other sheep” (a&lla pro/bata) who will “hear his voice” (10:1, notice also in this context the Greeks who approach Jesus in chapter 12).  More importantly, (b) the unity of all believers, a message subtly present throughout the entire Gospel, but which will find sublime expression in the “prayer” of chapter 17.

(2) ei($ poi/mhn (“one shepherd”). In his exposition of the parable, Jesus speaks of the “thief” who tries to sneak in and steal (or kill) the sheep (v. 8, 10), and the mere hireling who does not protect the sheep (v. 12-13)—both are false shepherd (“strangers”) whom sheep will not truly follow (v. 5). There is only one shepherd the sheep follow (v. 4, 14, 16, 27), and only one who lays his life down for the flock.

(3) mi/a poi/mnh ei($ poi/mhn (“one [sheep-]herd, one shepherd”). This means more than simply a combination of the two statements; rather the combined statement itself represents something quite new (and deeper). The key, I think, is the parallel declaration in v. 14-15, which I arrange chiastically:

  • e)gw/ ei)mi o( poimh\n o( kalo/$ (“I am the beautiful shepherd”)
    • kai\ ginw/skw ta\ e)ma\ kai\ ginw/skousi/ me ta\ e)ma/ (“and I know the [ones that are] mine, and the [ones that are] mine know me”)
    • kaqw\$ ginw/skei me o( path\r ka)gw\ ginw/skw to\n pate/ra (“even as the Father knows me and I know the Father”)
  • kai\ th\n yuxh/n mou ti/qhmi u(pe\r tw=n proba/twn (“and I set [down] my soul over [i.e. on behalf of] the sheep”)

The inner phrases express the great two-fold theme of unity, declared more completely in Jesus’ words to the Father in chapter 17:

i%na w@sin e^n kaqw\$ h(mei=$
“they they might be one even as we [are] (v. 11)”

i%na pa/nte$ e^n w@sin, kaqw\$ su/, pa/ter, e)n e)moi\ ka)gw\ e)n soi/, i%na kai\ au)toi\ e)n h(mi=n w@sin
“that all might be one, even as you, Father, [are] in me and I in you, that also they might be in us (v. 21)”

ka)gw\ th\n do/can h^n de/dwka/$ moi de/dwka au)toi=$, i%na w@sin e^n kaqw\$ h(mei=$ e%n
“and I have given the glory, which you have given to me, to them, that they might be one even as we [are] one (v. 22)”

i%na h( a)ga/ph h^n h)ga/phsa/$ me e)n au)toi=$ h@| ka)gw\ e)n au)toi=$
“…that the love [with] which you loved me might be in them, and I in them (v. 26b)”

Jesus as the Good Shepherd was a popular theme in early Christian art, including a number of depictions in the 2nd/3rd-century catacombs (underground burial sites in and around Rome)—making them some of the very earliest Christian works of art to survive. The pastoral imagery—well-known from mythology and the bucolic poetry of Theocritus, Virgil, et al.—was especially suited for an idyllic representation of the afterlife in Greco-Roman culture. But for Christians, there was probably an inherent religious message as well. The Good Shepherd discourse in John precedes the raising of Lazarus from the dead; and, surely the image of the shepherd protecting and preserving his sheep offered considerable comfort to those facing death. One might also have had in mind the words of John 10:28: “and I give them eternal life [life of the Age], and no they shall not perish unto the Age, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand!”