Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

125. The Good Shepherd (John 10:1-21)

In all the Bible there is hardly any figure of speech more familiar to the ordinary reader or more eloquent to express divine ideas than that of sheep and Shepherd.

The deliverance of Israel from Egypt and God's care for them in the wilderness is described by this simile: "Thou leddest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron" (Ps.77 -.20). "Where is he that brought them up out of the (Red) sea with the shepherd of his flock?" (ls.63 :11). The familiar words of the Hundredth Psalm repeat the idea: "We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture" (100:3).The twin psalm (95:7) echoes the words.

Out of intimate personal experience of the shepherd's task, David thankfully praised the Lord for His care: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters" (Ps.23:l,2).

There is no little fitness about the appropriation of this figure of speech to David's own great work as the leader of God's people: "He (the Lord) chose David his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds ... he brought him to feed (shepherd) Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he fed them according to the integrity of his heart; and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands" (Ps. 78:70-72).

Naturally enough, the same imagery is taken up time after time by the prophets to describe the Messiah promised under the Davidic Covenant: "I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them aqain to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase. And I will set up shepherds (intensive plural for "a great Shepherd"?) which shall feed them"-and then follows immediately the prophecy of Messiah the Branch, the Lord our Righteousness, raised up to sit on David's throne (Jer.23 :3-6).

Ezekiel's finest prophecy of the kingdom of God has as its grand climax: "David my servant shall be their shepherd" (37 -.21-28).

Similarly, Micah foretold the raising up of "seven shepherds and eight principal men"— Messiah and his seven archangels? (Rev. 5:4)— as the vindicators of God's people in the last days (Mic. 5:5).

It is somewhat surprising to find the most elaborate development of this shepherd allegory in the writings of Ezekiel the priest. From beginning to end his 34th chapter is at once a powerful arraignment of false shepherds and a gracious assurance of heavenly care for the Lord's true flock. The leaders of Israel who selfishly fed themselves and grossly neglected their people will be made to answer for their evil ways (see also on this ls. 56:10-12). The people of the Lord, scattered among the nations like so many sheep, are to be gathered again and cared for in a good fold and with rich pasture. Even in the flock itself the good shepherd will exercise an unerring discrimination—between fat cattle and lean cattle, between sheep and goats. Evil beasts, ever preying on the defenceless, will be chased away, and in a land of complete safety the flock will browse contentedly under the sure care of "my servant David."

Isaiah has a similar, but brief, picture of great loveliness: "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young" (40:11).

The catalogue of such passages is far from being exhausted, but the trend of those already cited makes clear that Jesus' claim to be the Good Shepherd would be interpreted by his Jewish hearers as an assertion that he was the Messiah the Son of God, the manifestation of Jehovah. This is the background to all he had to say on this theme.

The chapter division in John would have come better at 9 :38. The Lord's discourse was a straight continuation from his censure of the Pharisees (and note v.7,19). There is no example of the characteristic "Verily, verily" (v.l) ever coming at the beginning of a new section of his teaching.

Thieves and Robbers

Jesus could read the minds of the men before him. They included Pharisees who in their hearts were convinced of the truth of the Lord's claims, but who were too timid to come out into the open in support of him; they included also some of his most vicious enemies who were even now scheming how they might wreck this new movement from within by pretending discipleship and by secretly working to undermine all progress (see Notes): "He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold (that is, the true temple of God; Ps.100:3,4; 95 :6,7); but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber." If a distinction of meaning is to be made regarding these terms, the thief is the one who works by craft, and the robber by violence. The same enemies of truth would follow first one policy and then, with increasing confidence, the other. Jeremiah had had to contend with the same kind of opposition. "Behold, I am against the prophets that steal my words every one from his neighbour" (23:30) —false teachers who appropriated what suited them out of Jeremiah's message, and passed it off as their own inspiration. And again: "Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?" (7 :11)— they plotted violence against this faithful prophet and his unpopular message. So also would be the experience of Jesus and his gospel.

By contrast, "he that entereth in by the door is a shepherd of the sheep'—that is, a true, faithful shepherd. At this point Jesus was not speaking specially of himself, but of any who would conscientiously guide his flock in coming days.

Parable and Interpretation

The interpretation of the "parable" is not without difficulty, that is, if all the details are to be assigned a meaning consistent with one another. There are certain fixed points. Jesus identifies himself with the Good Shepherd, giving his life to save the flock, and also he is the door of the sheepfold (Rom.5 :2). This seeming inconsistency ceases to present difficulty once the metonymy is recognized: here "door" signifies "the one in charge of the door", that is, the "porter." In Psalm 24 :7, the words: "Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors," are addressed to those in charge of the gates of Jerusalem, the watchmen who put the challenge: "Who is this king of glory?" Similarly, in 2 Samuel 18 :26 the Hebrew word for "porter" is, literally, "gate,"

Thus, the picture presented is of one who is fit to be a shepherd of the flock being admitted by the guardian of the sheep (Acts 14:27; Mk.13:34). This shepherd learns to know his sheep intimately and affectionately. He leads them out, away from other sheep which remain in the fold. The sheep follow him as their shepherd, but they give no heed to a stranger, because he is a stranger.

A worthy shepherd would not dream of trying to climb into the fold by some indirect way, but only through access granted by the One who has authority over the fold and is himself the Chief Shepherd. He guides them to good pasture, protects them from thieves, and when a wolf would ravage the flock, instead of timidly saving his own skin, he faithfully does all in his power to keep the flock from harm. The Good Shepherd is even ready to contend to the death in order that the sheep might be saved.

The general interpretation of these features of the allegory is less difficult, if, once again, it is remembered that Jesus was addressing a group of the religious leaders—Pharisees, some of whom were timid friends, and others, as different as possible, who were secret enemies, pretending to be friends.

Jesus foresaw that if any of these able men were to join the ecclesia he sought to establish, whether sincerely or deceitfully, their training and status would inevitably make them highly influential for good or evil. Any true shepherd, accepted and welcomed by the guardian of the fold, would be accepted by the sheep. The sheep would hear, that is, obey his voice (v.3).

Special emphasis

The repetition, emphasis, and development of this simple idea—a docile subjection to the shepherd, and especially to the Good Shepherd—is the constant theme of this section of the gospel:

The sheep follow him, for they know his voice."
"They know not the voice of strangers."
"The sheep did not hear them (the thieves and robbers)"
"I know my sheep, and am known of mine."
"Other sheep ... I must bring, and they shall hear my voice."
"He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?"
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
"And many resorted unto him."
"And many believed on him there."

The shepherd "calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out." Here Jesus foreshadowed the separation of his disciples from Jewry, a separation made inevitable when the name of Christ is named upon them (e.g. Acts 22:16 Gk., Jas. 2:7 Gk.)

The usual interpretation of "calleth each sheep by its own name" is a very happy one (Ex.33 :12,17; 28 :21; ls.43 :1; 40 :26,11; Ps.147:4; Lk.19 -.5; Jn.l :48; 20:16). However, it is (a) far less fundamental than the suggestion given here; (b) more remote from the ideas of John's gospel; (c) according to the Greek, less likely; (d) the blind man, in chapter 9, is not called by his own name (this is carefully left out of the narrative), but he is called by and to the name of the Son of God (9:28,35).

However, the Lord's flock is marked off from the rest not through an unintelligent mass response (which the modern use of "follow like a flock of sheep" normally implies). The framing of the Greek verbs (verse 4) very subtly implies an individual response: "the sheep (all) follow him: for they (individually) know his voice'—as the blind man did (9 :36). Here the word "know" (v.4,5) is a carry over from eleven occurrences in chapter 9.

The reaction of the sheep to the call of a stranger (a false teacher) is equally instinctive: "they will flee from him, for they know not the voice of strangers." In coming days the apostle Paul was to warn against men who would arise, "speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20 :30); but, as it proved, he warned in vain.

This "sheep and shepherd" parable was but little appreciated by the learned men who heard it (contrast v.4c). They "knew not" the voice of the Good Shepherd, because they were not his sheep. But the disciples who heard treasured the words and found them of inestimable value in later days when responsibility fell heavily upon them.

Parable and warning renewed

Because his hearers were slow to grasp his meaning (v.6) Jesus renewed his parable. This time he put even more emphasis on the possible abuses of the responsible office of shepherd over the flock of God.

The warning against "thieves" was repeated. Such come only "to steal, and to kill, and to destroy." Here the last two verbs are interpretative. Thieves gain nothing by destroying the flock. And the word "kill" means "to kill in sacrifice." Thus Jesus anticipated what he was later to declare yet more plainly: "The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth service to God" (Jn.16 :2). The persecutor, and his evil work!

Another grievous danger was the ferocious wild beast intent on ravaging the flock: "The wolf snatcheth them (v.29 s.w.), and scattereth the sheep." It is tempting here to see exemplification of these sombre words in the experiences of the disciples at the arrest of their Lord (Mk.14 :27; Jn.16 :32), and especially in the way in which Peter's loyalty was overborn in the courtyard of the high-priest's palace. But both Jesus and Paul refer this figure to false teachers and self-accredited prophets: "False prophets ... in sheep's clothing, but inwardly ravening wolves" (Mt.7 :15); "grievous wolves shall enter in, not sparing the flock" (Acts 20:29).

In the face of such testing situations, Jesus prophesied, unworthy leaders of the ecclesia would show up in their own true colours. Not really caring for the sheep, but only for their own comfort, such "hirelings" would take to their heels, and let come what may in the form of dereliction and damage of the flock. This, because such false men "care not for sheep," but only for their own well-being, just as Judas "cared not for the poor"(12 :6). "All seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ's," Paul wrote in sadness (Phil.2:21; contrast 1 :24,25).

This searing phrase of Christ: "he careth not for the sheep," disowns those who insist on being feather-bedded in a "pure fellowship." Such, who withdraw hastily into a righteous minority at the first sign of that whch offends their conscience, "care not for the sheep" but only for their own selfish spiritual comfort. Yet how often, alas, has such behaviour been dressed up in the garb of virtue and faithfulness (contrast 1 Sam.12 :23). In the past century the flock of Christ has suffered very sadly through such mistaken attitudes. So there has been a bad inheritance, and a bad history!

By contrast, Jesus proclaimed himself "the door of the sheep'—that is, as already explained, the Chief Shepherd who guards the entrance of the sheepfold. Only through him is there valid access. These rabbis and Pharisees to whom he now spoke must humble themselves to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the Chief Shepherd of God's true flock and as the only one with authority to delegate to them (should they prove worthy) any degree of responsibility over the flock.

It was a sweeping claim which Jesus made, especially since he linked with it a peremptory cancellation of all the privileges which these men deemed to be theirs by right: "All that came before me are thieves and robbers." Christ constantly claimed to be the fulfilment of Law and Prophets. No other teacher could make such a claim without stamping himself "a thief and a robber." That present tense: "are", shows that it was Christ's arrogant contemporaries; who were under this censure, and not John the Baptist and the Old Testament prophets who had gone before. They had all pointed the way to himself.

Probably, also, the word "came" was specially chosen to contrast these self-appointed leaders with those whom God sent for the guidance of His flock. Paul also used, rather sarcastically, the same word about one of the same sort (2 Cor. 11:4 cp. Jer. 23:21). And in the same spirit Peter exhorted: "Neither be lords over God's heritage, but be examples to the flock" (1 Pet. 5:3).

"By me if any man enter in (as a shepherd of the sheep), he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture" (cp. Rom.5 :2). Serious misunderstanding can result here from a failure to recognize the Biblical idiom. From the time of Moses, "to go in and out" was a familiar expression for leadership of God's people: "Let the Lord set a man over the congregation, which may go out before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd" (Num. 27:16,17). Thus, to "go in and out, and find pasture" very aptly describes the conscientious attention of a good ecclesial leader caring for the needs of the community, especially in the provision of good spiritual instruction-not nomos (the Law of Moses) but pasture (name).

The Good Shepherd

Thus far Jesus had concentrated mainly on the duties of all good shepherds and on the chief dangers to the flock. Now, at last, he focussed attention on himself:" I am the Good Shepherd," that is, the Good Shepherd already foretold through the prophets. But, remarkably, this description emphasizes not the Shepherd's goodness of character (agathos), but that he is good and skilful in the role of shepherd (kales), as a man may be a good pianist or work manager,

And that fine quality springs from his own personal experience: "I know mine own, and mine own know me, even as the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father" (R.V.). He, the Lamb of God, who experienced in a very special way the love and care of the Father, is also the Shepherd of a flock of his own, and all the personal affection and intimacy which he experienced with his Shepherd he would fain foster between himself and his flock. This lovely relationship is beautifully expressed in the symbolism of Revelation: "the Lamb shall be their shepherd" (7 :17RV).

"I know my sheep, and am known of mine” – it is readily understandable that here Jesus should use a word which emphasises "learning, getting to know," for the relationship between sheep and Shepherd is one of growing intimacy. But that the same word should be used again-"the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father'-is truly remarkable, especially since there was another commonly-used word available which has more of the idea: "know intimately or familiarly." Such a phenomenon as this must be altogether baffling to the Trinitarian whose theology presents the concept of a Father and Son enjoying divine fellowship from all eternity! Over against this, the true relationship— a Son and a Father coming to know and understand one another more and more as that earthly life expanded in its powers and its spiritual perfection— becomes one of the loveliest ideas presented in all the four gospels. It is one only to be truly appreciated, surely, through the ripening of a similar relationship between Lord and disciple, Shepherd and sheep.

"O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me" (17 :25). "No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the 1 Son and he to whosoever the Son will reveal him" (Mt. 11:27). These sayings use the same meaningful expression; "they teach the same wonderful idea.

"I am known of mine," Jesus said. It is a simple phrase, but how intensely significant, specially for those who, in turn, are called to be shepherds of the flock. One mightily essential qualification is that such men know the Good Shepherd. Yet how often, alas, is a knowledge of business affairs or of the exposition of the deep things of the Truth esteemed to be a more important qualification! For leaders of the flock there is no single personal characteristic more needful than knowing the Good Shepherd— and how shall he be known if there be not diligent application to the four gospels?

And as the Son was willing to lay down his life in fulfilment of the Father's commandment, so also as Good Shepherd he gave his life for the sheep. The experiences of Jacob the shepherd (Gen.31 :39,40) and of David the shepherd (1 Sam.17 :34,35; cp. Ez.34 :12,23) tell something of the hazards besetting the one faithful to his flock. And if true in their labour, how much more true of Jesus!

More emphasis
The emphasis is very strong:

"The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep."
"I lay down my life for the sheep."
"Therefore doth the Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again."
"No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself."
"I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again."

The words just quoted from verse 18 are not easy to reconcile with those which immediately fellow: "This commandment have I received of my Father." Even when it is recognized that the "commandment" referred to is the imperative of Holy Scripture, the Old Testament blue-print of Messiah's work, there still remains a marked contrast between the spirit of these two sayings. "Power" means "authorisation", "the right of decision;" there is almost the idea of privilege. Whereas "commandment" necessarily implies obligation.

The distinction is due to a difference in point of view. In effect Jesus was saying: 'The time will come when I shall die to save those committed to me. I shall die not because unable to evade the hostile scheming of my enemies, but because it is Ike Father's will (ls. 53:10) that I give my life for others.'

But there is also a further implication. This laying down of his life is closely linked with the love of the Father; "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, in order that I might take it again." Here is emphasis that his imminent self-sacrifice was not only to save the flock but to realise yet more fully the love of his Father. Some men, chiefly suicides, have power to decide when and how they will die, but only Jesus had the power to decide when and how — and why — he would rise again: "as quiet and assured (wrote John Carter) as a healthy man speaks of resuming his work after rest in sleep.”

Other sheep

Linked with this obligation to die was another important divine imperative: "And other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd ."Sent with a mission to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel," Jesus, instructed by Holy Scripture, looked beyond this to the greater work of saving helpless Gentiles, by bringing them into the fold of Israel: "they shall become one fold and (all shall have) one Shepherd" (Eph. 2:11-22; Rom. 11: 25-32). Here the future tenses are important. The redemption of the Gentiles was not the Lord's immediate task. It lay beyond his suffering and resurrection, and even then was to be accomplished through the diligent work of his disciples. From the present occasion right up to the Passover of his crucifixion the discourses of Jesus are dotted with allusions to this great expectation. Faced with the hostility of the leaders and the indifference or timid uncertainty of the people, the prospect of Gentiles being called, through his work, to the hope of Israel, became an outstanding solace for a sorely disappointed Son of God (Is. 49:6).

It seems likely that already he had considered and appreciated the healing of the blind man as a type and sign of Gentiles enlightened by the gospel (see Study 124), and it was this encouragement which led him to foretell the inclusion of "other sheep" in his flock, even though there was also implicit in that acted parable a prophecy of rancorous Jewish opposition to Gentile privilege.

"One fold" is a mistranslation which the Roman church has always seized on as "proving" that there is no salvation outside "Mother Church." But "one flock" (as RV etc.) means that all in this flock truly acknowledge the one Shepherd.

This latest discourse, with its clear assumption of Messianic authority, had a dramatic effect on the rabbis and scribes who heard it. The cleavage in opinion amongst them became more marked than ever. Some—most—fumed at the scarcely veiled censure of themselves as "thieves and robbers." Others hesitated timorously, convinced in their inmost souls, yet not daring to accede openly and unequivocally to his claims. With a show of impartiality, they appealed to both his word and his works: "These are not the words of him that hath a devil;" and: "Can a man possessed with a devil open the eyes of the blind?"

That day, and thereafter, there was, doubtless, much argumentation among them.

Notes: Jn.10:1-21

Other "shepherd" passages of importance: Ez.20:37; 37:21-28; Jer. 31:10; Zech 11:13 :7; Mt.25:32; 26:31; 15:24; 9:36; ls. 65:10; 56:9-12; 1Pet. 2:25; Heb. 13:20; Acts 1:21; Ps.l21; Lk.15 :4-7. Ezekiel 34 has important NT. contacts:

v.5,12 =Mt.9:36.
v.23 =Jn.10:11.
v.17 = Mt.25:32,33.
v.4, contrast 1 Pet.5:3. *"
Also v.31 = Ps.l00:3 precisely.
v.12 = Joe 2:2.
And there are no less than ten links with Ez.37,38.

Climbeth up some other way. It was a policy which was followed in later days with outstanding success: Acts 20:29,30; 15:1,24; Gal. 2:4; 1:8; Eph. 4:14; 2 Th. 2:2; 3:17; 2 Cor. 10:10-12; 11:3,4,21-23; 12:7; Phil. l:15,16;2Tim. 1:15;4:14-16; 1 Tim. 1:19,20;Tit. 1:10,11. See "The Jewish Plot",by H.A.W. Hoskyns calls this chapter the Parable of the Sheep, the Shepherd, and the Brigands.
He putteth forth his own sheep; s.w. 9 :34,35. Then is there an allusion here to God-sent persecution? e.g. Ads 8:1?
This parable. Not the usual NT. word for parable, but as in Pr.l :1;25 :1. Yet on many an occasion Jesus turned these proverbs into parables. Ps.78 :2 (Symmachus) has the same word. But it has never been clearly explained why here Jesus switched from parabole.
Enter in, saved, go in and out. The order of the phrases is significant. Clearly here the Lord speaks of being "saved" as a present, as well as a future, experience.
More abundantly. Better: "and shall have abundance;" cp.Ps.23 :1,5: "I shall not want ... my cup runneth over." Contrast Lk.2: 16.
Seeth. The Greek word here is puzzling.
As the Father knoweth me. The heavenly Shepherd and His Lamb. In effect Jesus appropriates Psalm 23 to himself. Of course, if that psalm was true for David, it was true for the Son of David.

Must means "it is necessary;" Mt.l6:21; 26:54; Lk.13 :33; 17:25; 24:7,26,44.
One fold, one shepherd. In the light of v.11,14, there is here an implicit prophecy of his resurrection. Anticipations of the call of the Gentiles are to be found in Mt.21 :2-7; 22 :8-10; 24 :14; Mk.12 :9; 13 :10; Lk.14:21,23;17:18;Jn.ll:52; 12:32.

One shepherd suggests a Messianic interpretation of Ecc. 12 :11.

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