Read John 10:1–21.
Maybe it’s the chapter break in our modern Bibles or the way that longer episodes from Jesus’ ministry are often preached in church, but as we consider the next two of Jesus’ “I am” statements in John’s Gospel, it can be easy to lose sight of where we are in the story. Let’s recap: Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath. In response, a group of Pharisees went full Spanish inquisition on the once-blind man. When the guy testified to the goodness of Jesus, the Pharisees “threw him out” (John 9:34).
With two thousand years separating us from the original culture and context, that little phrase is easy to skim past, but there’s a lot to it. The Pharisees excommunicated the man from the fellowship of the local synagogue, which was the center of Jewish life in tight-knit communities of the first century. This meant that his family and his neighbors were not to associate with him, but instead treat him as a Gentile. It also meant that he was no longer eligible for financial aid—something that as a blind person he had likely depended upon. Needless to say, being cast out of the synagogue was a life-changing blow.
But then Jesus showed up to invite the man into a fellowship much more valuable and precious than the local synagogue. Jesus asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (v. 35). Though the man did not initially understand whether Jesus was referring to Himself or to someone else, he wanted in: “Then the man said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” (v. 38).
Jesus’ message to the Pharisees in the first half of John 10 is a response to these events. Using a parable about sheep and shepherds, He explains what is happening in the present moment. The topic would have been a familiar one for these religious leaders, not only because shepherding was a common vocation in first-century Israel, but also because God had spoken of Israel as His sheep in the Old Testament Prophets.
In Ezekiel’s day, the leaders of Israel were like corrupt shepherds, fattening themselves while abusing the sheep God placed in their care:
Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. (Ezekiel 34:2–4)
The Lord didn’t leave it there, however. In the same passage, He promised to rescue the sheep of Israel from their brutal shepherds:
I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken. (vv. 32–34)
Ezekiel wrote his prophecies centuries after King David lived and reigned. The shepherd in view is not David himself, but one of his descendants—the Messiah. In John 10, Jesus tells the Pharisees that He is the Good Shepherd God promised, the Son of David who loves the sheep and cares for them.
But first, Jesus says He is the “gate for the sheep” (v. 7). It’s an odd declaration tucked into a parable where He’s otherwise identified Himself as the Good Shepherd. It may be that He’s describing one of the activities of His shepherding—that He rests within the opening of the sheep pen as a human door, making sure that no stranger comes in and no sheep goes out. It’s a way of announcing, “If you want to get to the sheep whom I love, you’ll have to go through Me first!” As the gate, Jesus is also the only way to the Father and the only way to abundant life: “Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture…. I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (v. 9–10).
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus knows His sheep by name and cares for their needs. He goes beyond even the description given in Ezekiel 34. He says, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). We who know where Jesus’ life and ministry are headed read past these words. We know Jesus will lay down His life at Calvary. But think about the parable for a moment. What good is a shepherd who sacrifices himself when a wolf comes? He will be lying there dead, and the wolf will then gorge itself on the defenseless sheep.
The key to understanding comes in what Jesus says next concerning His life: “I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (v. 18). The Good Shepherd will not stay dead; He will live to shepherd the sheep, even though He dies.
Of course, the Pharisees standing in Jesus’ midst don’t understand this, and this strange line just fuels their frustration. But the thrust of Jesus’ story is that He is the worthy Shepherd that each of these men had each failed to be. The Pharisees are among the spiritual leaders of Israel, and they are no better than their counterparts from Ezekiel’s day. Case in point: the man who was born blind. Rather than celebrating his healing, the Pharisees condemned him for it. Rather than helping him transition from a life of begging to a life of meaningful work, they threw him out of the synagogue.
It’s unclear whether Jesus is directly identifying the Pharisees with the thieves and robbers in his parable or He’s simply saying they had failed to protect the sheep from such villains. Either way, these religious leaders are wicked and terrible shepherds who care more about feeding themselves than the sheep in their care. Jesus, in calling out their hypocrisy, is standing up for the man He has healed.
The sheep often get overlooked in this passage, but Jesus says something extraordinary about true Israel. First, He announces that, just as sheep know their shepherd, so will the true sons of Israel know Him: “The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (vv. 3–4). Second, He declares there are other sheep He has to go and get: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (v. 16).
The remnant of Israel who follow Jesus the Messiah will be brought together with Gentiles from every nation on earth who will also worship Jesus as Lord, and together they will form one new people of God. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’ve done. All that matters is what you do when you hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. As the Lord put it when He spoke through the prophet Isaiah, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isaiah 53:6). But the voice of Jesus, if we will listen for it and heed it, will lead us to green pastures and quiet waters, to the refreshment of our souls (Psalm 23:2–3).